HL Deb 04 November 2003 vol 654 cc682-5

2.53 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

How the imposition of a £250 fee for the renewal of student visas fits into their strategy for overseas students.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we fully recognise the contribution overseas students make to the United Kingdom and wish to encourage them to study here, but do not accept that the general taxpayer should fund the service. The benefits are, after all, reciprocal. Fees are set at levels which recover the costs of the service, £155 for the postal service and £250 for the same day premium service.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that very Home Office Answer. Does he nevertheless accept that it entirely contradicts the Prime Minister's efforts to encourage international students to study in Britain, and the efforts that Charles Clarke and others have made to increase the attraction of UK higher education to people outside the European Union? Does the noble Lord also accept that moving from a nil charge to £250 in one go for students on very limited budgets is remarkable and that to do so without the consultation that was promised in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 seems to be an example of very unjoined-up government?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not accept that it runs contrary to the Prime Minister's initiative. Since that initiative was launched increasing numbers of overseas students have come to the United Kingdom. In the year 2001–02, there were some 190,000 international students in further and higher education—55,000 more than in 1996–97. We are a brand leader. There are examples of comparable fees in our major competitor nations for the receipt of overseas students. We feel that we now have a very good service. It costs but it is a cost based on a quite proper calculation of the real costs in terms of delivering that service.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a great deal of difference between the length of time that international students are permitted to be in the UK on their initial visa? Would it not help to mitigate the hostility that has been created by this announcement if there was more uniformity? For example, some students are given the full period of their studentship plus a few months on their initial visa whereas others are given as little as six months. If the full time was always available, there would be less work for the Home Office and students would still come to the UK in the numbers that they have been.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an interesting and important point. The length that the visa lasts is very much related to the length of course the student is undertaking. But of course these are matters that the Government will continue to keep under review. When we look again at charges, that is something that we shall no doubt reconsider.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, do the Government think that they have explained this sharp rise adequately in the public domain to mitigate precisely the kind of hostility and lack of comprehension to which the recent supplementary question drew attention?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, obviously we are sensitive to the issues the right reverend Prelate raises, but during the passage of the 1999 legislation we made it plain that we would charge for this service. The origin of charging for such services goes back to legislation which has been on the statute book since 1983 and 1988. I hope that in future years, with the regular consultation that we are promising, people will better understand the basis of the fees.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust and of the Cambridge Overseas Trust which, together with a number of similar trusts and the government Chevening scholarships, very substantially finance the attendance of thousands of students at Cambridge University among many others. Can the noble Lord possibly justify the introduction of these fees without the promised consultation? The fee of £250 for personal attendance is seven times the £36 fee heretofore paid for attendance as a student. Does the noble Lord appreciate that these changes will make it profoundly difficult to continue attracting quality students to this country and will increase hostility to this country?

When I was in China a few weeks ago the international director of studies at one of the universities there said that until recently Chinese students had been angry with their own government for refusing to let them leave the country. They are now becoming increasingly hostile to western governments for their unfriendly response in this respect. It surely is not compatible with the Prime Minister's initiative specifically undertaken to make student access simpler and more user friendly for this kind of change to be made at this notice without proper consultation. Is it not a classic example of unjoined-up government of which the Government should be frankly ashamed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord. We have had this facility to charge on the statute book for approaching four years. We made it plain that that was our intent. I accept the noble and learned Lord's point that there should have perhaps been greater consultation but the negative resolution procedure did not necessarily facilitate that. We are very committed to ensuring that there is consultation in future, and that the fees represent a real charge in terms of the quality of the service. Students who apply for visas can now have a same-day application process, and can expect to have their postal application processed and turned round in a matter of weeks.

We believe that to be a significant improvement. Evidence, certainly that from MORI polling, suggests that students are impressed by the efficiency and effectiveness of the service, and that there is no disincentive so far as applying to universities here to come and study is concerned.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, first, will the Minister confirm on record that no consultation had taken place before the charge was increased, and that it was just introduced? Secondly, will he address the point raised by the noble Baroness on the Government Back Benches about those students who have only an annual visa and therefore have to pay the charge three or four times to complete a degree subject in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I would like to write to the noble Lord and confirm the exact situation on the second point. I made it plain at the outset that consultation was limited, but the power was in legislation in 1999. It was understood, and I am sure that it was debated in another place and in this House. The facility was also in legislation that goes back to 1988.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, the Minister has acknowledged the importance of the foreign students in this country, from both an education point of view and that of the financial contribution that they make. He referred to future consultation. Will he be more specific and give a more detailed undertaking that he will from now on consult the universities on the matter?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am entirely happy to give that confirmation. Now that the policy has been introduced and is working effectively, there will obviously be far greater opportunity for consultation with the British Council, UKCOSA, the universities and the higher and further education institutions. We are committed to that, and will ensure that there is much more information in the public domain. There is now much more information than there was, and the process of an application being rapidly seen to is plain for all to see.