HC Deb 10 July 1980 vol 988 cc903-14

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]

10.24 pm
Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

The people of Hong Kong will appreciate that in singling out this subject for urgent debate Mr. Speaker has been quick to recognise the deep concern about the Government's apparent discrimination against their students in the matter of university fees.

When the Government announced that overseas students should pay the full cost of the education that they receive at universities in Britain, there was general understanding of that principle although not universal acceptance of its merits. Most overseas students and their Governments resented the change, but the policy was consistent so long as it was aimed at all overseas students. However, when the application of the policy was set down in the DES circular of 10 June, it turned out that the policy was aimed not at all overseas students but only at some. Students from the EEC are to pay the same fees as those from the United Kingdom.

It is difficult to follow the logic of subsidising students from France and Germany and at the same time complaining about Britain's net contribution to the EEC budget. That exercise is designed to cut public spending, yet subsidies are retained for the very people whom we believe we are already subsidising too heavily. It may be that we benefit through subsidies from our EEC partners to British students studying in Europe. If so, what is the balance? Perhaps the Minister will give us some estimate of the consequential costs or benefit to Britain and explain the nature of our obligation to extend this concession to the European Community.

But the subsidy goes further than Europe. The countries of the Community are listed in the circular to which I have referred. Hon. Members probably think that by now they know which countries they are. It may come as a surprise to them to learn that, in addition to the well-known nine EEC countries, no fewer than 13 others are included. Five are recognisable as part of the principal countries, such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, but the remaining eight territories are not recognisable as part of the principal countries. Apart from Greenland and Gibraltar, they include the French overseas departments such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Reunion, St. Pierre and another that I cannot pronounce. There are, no doubt, good reasons for including in the EEC those remaining French colonies which are departments of France, but it is preposterous to allow the technicalities of the Treaty of Rome to drive us to make absurd distinctions in recognition of obligations to the dependent territories.

Why, for instance, should concessions be made to students from Guadeloupe and Martinique but not to those from the British Virgin Islands, which are next door? Why to those from French Guiana but not Belize, or to those from Gibraltar but not those from the Falkland Islands? Above all, why should Britain give favourable treatment to French and Danish overseas territories while excluding students from its largest remaining territory, Hong Kong?

Britain has not followed the French practice of calling its overseas territories departments of Britain and having them return their own representatives to Parliament—otherwise there would be more Members in this House representing Hong Kong than there would be representing Scotland. Yet Britain is ultimately responsible for the administration of Hong Kong. Its relationship with Hong Kong is much closer than with the sovereign States of the EEC. Similarily, Britain's relationship with countries formerly dependent on Britain and now independent members of the Commonwealth is clearly of a more distant and less responsible nature than with a dependent territory which has no prospects of ever becoming independent.

The relationship between Hong Kong and Britain is advantageous to both, but it needs to be nurtured. From time to time this involves recognising Hong Kong as being different and distinct from foreign countries when devising policies for overseas territories. The distinction is not without beneficial consequences for Britain. If Hong Kong were just another Chinese city, does anyone imagine that British exports to Hong Kong would still be three times those to the whole of China or even that exporters would find it possible to maintain and develop our present exports to China without the Hong Kong base?

No other group of 5 million people in Asia purchases anything like the value of British exports that Hong Kong does. Even Japan's total purchases exceed Hong Kong's by only one-third, despite the fact that Japan's GNP is 50 times that of Hong Kong. The income from insurance, banking, shipping and airline operations is substantial. Two of our nationalised industries, British Airways and Cable and Wireless, earn a large proportion of their profits in Hong Kong. Landing rights at its airport are in the gift of our Department of Trade. We are the only European or American country able to trade off landing rights at an important Asian airport for concessions elsewhere.

All this flows from the fact that Hong Kong is not a foreign country but a dependent country. Although dependent, Hong Kong makes few calls on Britain. Without aid, it has made astonishing progress in providing its own education in the face of quite staggering demands. When liberated from the Japanese occupation in 1945, with a population of only 600,000, there were not even enough primary schools for all its children. The influx from China gave Hong Kong a population of 4 million by 1971, yet by that year primary schooling was available for all. An even greater effort was required to produce secondary school places for all primary school leavers, but this was achieved by 1978.

The provision of places in universities and polytechnics has also progressed, although the supply of post-secondary education is still less than the demand. This is because the Hong Kong Government have—quite rightly, in my view—given priority to getting secondary schooling for everybody. Even though priority has had to be given to expansion of secondary education, the number of full-time students in higher education has increased at an average of 7 per cent. a year over the last five years. Similar progress has been made in housing and medical services.

All these achievements are now threatened by the excessive rate of immigration from China. Last year the population of Hong Kong increased by over 6 per cent., due very largely to emigration from China and the influx of refugees from Vietnam. It is as if the population of the United Kingdom were to increase by 3½ million people in a year. Four hundred to 500 new immigrants are still arriving every day.

The strain on all social services and education is severe, yet it is precisely at this time that Britain chooses to inflict even greater pressure on Hong Kong by increasing the cost of university education in Britain by two, three or five times, depending on the course.

University students from Hong Kong are among the most diligent and talented. On return to Hong Kong they carry British traditions and standards with them. A large proportion of leaders in commerce, industry and the professions in Hong Kong were educated in Britain, and always have been. The connections forged there in their youth are lifelong and show directly in their perforence for trading with this country.

It will be very difficult for the people of Hong Kong to accept protestations of support from Britain when they see that students from overseas territories of the major EEC countries are treated in Britain on a par with British students while students from Hong Kong, a British overseas territory, are treated in Britain as foreigners. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Colonial exploitation is a term which I had hoped had passed from the terminology of the relationships between Britain and its dependent territories. The retention of discrimination in this matter against British dependent territories is an extraordinary inconsistency which I hope will be removed before the fees become due in this autumn.

10.34 pm
Mr. Edward Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil)

I intervene briefly in this very important debate in order to associate the official Opposition fully with the remarks of the hon. Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan).

There are moments in any nonsensical policy when the absurdities and the anomalies of that policy destroy its whole rationale. The hon. Member's speech has amply demonstrated those absurdities and anomalies.

We have arrived at a position in which islands belonging to the French Government are entitled, under the EEC rules, to have the same preferential treatment, whereas dependent territories, whether they be Hong Kong, the Falkland Islands, the British Virgin Islands or a number of other territories of which I can speak personally—having in the previous Labour Government been the Minister responsible for our relations with those territories—are not so entitled. For those students to be discriminated against in this way reveals the absurdity of the policy.

There are times when a general policy statement can be revealed for what it is —when its anomalies and idiosyncrasies can be revealed. We associate ourselves with what was said about the policy by the hon. Member for Howden.

Does anyone believe that we should discriminate against students from Hong Kong, the British Virgin Islands or the remaining dependent territories, of which there are 17 in all, Hong Kong being the largest, when students from French overseas territories are entitled under the EEC rules to study here on the same basis as other EEC students?

Will the Minister explain the so-called logic of that argument? [Interruption.] Irrespective of the figures, it is nonsense. Is the Minister going to say "We do not think that anybody from Martinique or any other territory will come here"? We accept the principle of allowing French overseas students to come here—it may be a dozen, 15 or whatever; I do not care what the figure is—but to discriminate against students from our dependent territories is a disgrace.

The Government preach the idea of promoting Western influence and rejecting influences from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. To cut back on British Council grants and other areas of intangible influence that we have been able to promote and achieve is nonsense.

I hope that the Minister will not rest his case on the argument he has been pressing from a sedentary position. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will reject it if he does. We support the statement made by the hon. Member for Howden.

10.37 pm
Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State would not expect me to question the policy of having high fees for overseas students since 1974–75 when I had the dubious distinction of being quoted in The Times leader for saying that the then fees were peanuts. This is not the time or place to go into the scale on which fees are raised.

I want to make a brief intervention because I was recently in Hong Kong. I urge my hon. Friend not to be too insular. I think that there are important questions here of the relationship between Hong Kong and this country which transcend the narrow considerations of his Department and of finance which are difficult for him in his dealings with the Treasury.

I went to Hong Kong with my hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral (Mr. Hunt). We were struck vividly by the concern expressed about this matter. This was the touchstone of our relationship with Hong Kong. We were asked "Is it a dependent territory or is it a foreign territory?" That was linked with the Cathay Pacific issue, now happily resolved to Hong Kong's satisfaction, I think, with the nationality problem, with the question of the MFA negotiations and with the financing of British troops there. All these matters coalesce and take on a dimension and importance beyond the specific question of Hong Kong students in this country.

There is a direct and specific gain to this country in having Hong Kong students here. My hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral and I were urging Chinese business men to buy more British goods, more British cloth. Our hon. Friend the Minister for Trade is going out there with a delegation to urge them to buy more of our goods. What do we do? Do we hold out our hand to them to show that they matter to us? When they look at what we have done for French dependent territories, they are disappointed. That is the central question.

We must not take for granted the status of Hong Kong. The bulk of students coming to Britain from Hong Kong for higher education go into engineering. They do not go back to Government service or white collar jobs, as is so often the case in this country. They go into industry and commerce and, therefore, have a direct impact on investment. In our own interests, it is important that the Chinese leaders in that colony have a British bias when they come to decide on investment and purchasing.

I urge my hon. Friend, with his interest in and his writings on the history and philosophy of conservatism, to maintain a belief in empiricism and to judge forces on their consequences and not merely in terms of the specific requirements of his Department and its dealings with the Treasury. There are important outside consequences to be considered. We must nurture our relationship with Hong Kong. We should not take it for granted. If we are to use Hong Kong, as we must, as the key bridge towards boosting our new relationship and rapprochement with China, we must build and maintain links with Hong Kong.

10.40 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I appreciate the concern expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) and for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), who has recently returned from Hong Kong. I was with our fleet in the Far East at the time of the reoccupation of Hong Kong. I was again in Hong Kong two years ago with Milton Friedman, who was contemplating a television programme about Hong Kong, where he felt there were useful lessons to learn.

I appreciate the genuine concern of my hon. Friends over students from Hong Kong. However, we cannot divorce consideration of those students from the Government's overall policy on overseas students. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) was a member of the Select Committee dealing with the matter. The reports are being carefully studied, and the Government's response will be given shortly.

We have no lessons to learn from the Labour Party about foreign students. Labour policy on quotas and increasing fees has failed. Our policy will succeed. I am pleased to see signs of reform on the part of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands). However, it was Anthony Crosland who first introduced differential fees for overseas students in 1967–68. Labour Governments increased those fees five times. The Conservative Government increased them once. In 1978–79 a Labour Government introduced quotas. We shall kill the fatted calf if the prodigal son has truly reformed, but we shall not know that until we see another Labour Government in power.

It is important to consider the figures. In the 10 years from 1967–68 to 1977–78 the number of overseas students, heavily subsidised by British taxpayers, many of whom would have liked to go to university, multiplied. Hon. Gentlemen may shake their heads, but I have more confidence in the man in the street. The trouble with the Labour Party is that it has lost its beliefs.

The Labour Party tried to control the number of overseas students but instead multiplied it. Labour Members now object when we try to control the number. I am sorry to draw so much blood. but it is interesting to see how the Labour Party's guilt complex manifests itself.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston-upon-Hull, West)

What about Hong Kong?

Dr. Boyson

I realise that the hon. Gentleman is trying to protect his Front Bench colleagues. He is a courteous man. However, they are beyond saving.

Over the past 10 years, the number of foreign students in our universities has increased by 18,500—the size of two universities the size of the university of Birmingham. We cannot let the British taxpayer continue to support that increasing number.

I am not a lawyer. I take advice on legal questions. The dependent territories of France are legally part of France. Hong Kong is not part of Britain.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

The situation is morally wrong.

Dr. Boyson

It may be morally wrong, but one cannot go into court and expect to have a case dismissed because one is morally right. France's dependent territories are part of France. That is the only way that the EEC can work.

Hon. Members have raised the question of numbers.

Mr. Kinnock

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Boyson


Mr. Kinnock


Dr. Boyson

We know how long the hon. Gentleman takes once he gets on his feet. We can never get him down again. I will not allow him to intervene. I am replying to my hon. Friends and some Labour Back Benchers, but not to the Opposition Front Bench. Let me give the figures.

Mr. Kinnock

Do not mislead the House.

Dr. Boyson

I shall not mislead the House. The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) should not talk about anyone misleading the House, bearing in mind what he said recently about school books.

In 1977–78 only seven students came to Britain from France's overseas territories. How many were there from the rest of the world? We have talked about a figure of 86,000. How many were there from the Commonwealth? We all appreciate the Commonwealth. There is at least equal feeling for the Commonwealth on the Government side as there is among the Opposition. After all, who initiated the debate? Was it the Opposition or was it Conservative Back Benchers who are genuinely concerned?

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

It is incumbent upon the Minister to say how much weight the Government attach to the numbers argument, which has a point to it, and, against that, how much weight they attach to the issue that some of us consider much weightier—namely, the influence of Britain in the world and our responsibilities towards dependent territories.

Dr. Boyson

That is a serious question. I shall answer it in the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman asked it. How does one transfer morality into legal practice within the EEC? That is the problem. Legally, French territories are part of France. Hong Kong is not part of Britain. The whole question turns on that. That is how the difficulty has to be looked at.

I mentioned the numbers because no one can say that the British university system was being overcrowded by the seven students to whom I referred. We could absorb them.

I have great respect for the educational knowledge of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West. We have had many great battles over the past 15 years and he has often scored points at my expense. In 1978–79 there were 5,000 students from Hong Kong in all our institutions, includin 1,600 in universities.

Reference has been made to the EEC decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Howden did not stress that aspect. He mentioned the dependent territories of France. We made that decision as regards the EEC in the light of the principle of student mobility within the Community. I have never been an enthusiast of the EEC. If there is such a thing as an agnostic on the EEC, I am it. But we are a member of the EEC and we must act as such. The EEC is the only area of the world which sends us fewer students than we send to it. Everywhere else the opposite applies.

Mr. Kinnock

That is a stupid argument.

Dr. Boyson

To the hon. Member all arguments are stupid except those he puts forward. Some people, however, even disagree with the points that he makes on the basis of his great brilliance.

We have brought into practice a new scholarship system for overseas postgraduate students which will apply to Hong Kong as to everywhere else. I believe that people will come here not for first degrees but for postgraduate degrees as more universities become developed in Hong Kong. We are building up to the point where within three years one-seventh of the postgraduate research students in this country will be funded. Many of them will come from Hong Kong.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides about £36 million to be spent in parts of the Commonwealth and the Third world to help students. That should be borne in mind. I shall be greatly interested, when the figures are published in the autumn, to discover how many fewer we are taking from various parts of the world. The figures two months ago showed that applications were only 12 per cent. down, yet the numbers could fall by 17 per cent. before the universities would lose a penny of the money that is paid to them.

My hon. Friends referred to the development of higher education in Hong Kong. It has been progressing very well. There are now two universities and one polytechnic there. One aspect that we are considering is the loan system that has been developed in Hong Kong. Last year $26 million was provided interest free to the universities under the loan system. The figure for the polytechnic was $8.5 million interest-free. Perhaps the Government of Hong Kong could be approached on the possibility of some of that help being transferred to Hong Kong students in this country. I have discussed that with my hon. Friend the Minister of State. Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

When we know the figures in October, we shall monitor what has happened. We have put £5 million into postgraduate courses in universities to prevent their going under this year. If we find that certain territories are particularly affected, while we cannot guarantee that we shall change the policy we will look at the situation as it has developed and against the background of our own economic circumstances.

If we can do anything in any way to help Hong Kong in the development of its higher education system—this applies to my Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—we shall do it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Howden for having raised the point. We understand his concern. he also realises, I know, the need for cutbacks, given the economic circumstances of this country. We are prepared to continue a dialogue within our present policy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.