HL Deb 13 December 2004 vol 667 cc1081-4

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for increasing visa charges for international students.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the cost of providing worldwide entry clearance is met entirely from fee income, not by United Kingdom taxpayers. Currently, all visa fees are under review. Ministers will receive advice early in the new year on whether the fees should be amended or not.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, charges for visa extensions were introduced for the first time in 2003, which is the issue I want to raise. Very little warning was given and there was no consultation. In a recent study by the Council for International Education, 36 per cent of the international students surveyed reported needing to apply for a visa extension at some point. This issue has generated a great deal of anxiety and bad feeling. Does my noble friend not agree that the new proposals to increase charges still further could undermine the Prime Minister's stated aim to increase the number of international students studying in the United Kingdom?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I rather feared that this was what lay behind my noble friend's Question. Technically, these are not applications for visas, but for extensions of leave to remain. It is therefore a Home Office duty to deal with extensions. However, I shall do my best to answer my noble friend.

The funding did indeed change in 2003 and the charges are quite high, at £155 for a postal application and £250 for an application in person. These fees are also under review, and I understand that my colleagues in the Home Office will be getting further advice during the spring and summer of next year. However, if people apply to the Foreign Office in posts abroad, they will find that the current cost for entrance clearance is £36, which can be done for a further period beyond the initial foundation course if they know that they are going to have to extend. Only 2 per cent of the wrongly applied fees are the result of entry clearance officer error.

Lord Rix

My Lords, I declare an interest as Chancellor of the University of East London. Are the Government aware of the problems encountered by universities like mine in the issue of visas to overseas students, particularly those from China? What are the Government doing to ensure that no further damage is done to the recruitment of overseas students—again, to universities like mine?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the number of applications for entry clearance from students is going up very considerably every single year, so none of these changes appears to be very offputting to the students concerned. As regards China, in May this year we set up a student assessment unit in our embassy in Beijing to assess each individual application on paper alone. That has meant a greater reliance on documentary evidence, a closer scrutiny of application papers, and a good deal of responsibility being placed on the students themselves. The result has been a greater refusal rate. But that was because much of the paperwork submitted was not sound.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, is the Minister aware that overseas PhD students applying from abroad for some posts have been offered one year's worth of visa entry clearance to Britain, thus in effect taxing them to complete their course? Can she assure us that that sort of thing will not happen in the future? Moreover, since three different departments are involved in this area—the Department for Education and Skills, the Foreign Office and the Home Office—can we be sure of having proper joined-up government here? To many of us there appears to have been a breakdown in joined-up government and that the Home Office has been pulling in a different direction from that of the Department for Education and Skills when these fees were imposed.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in my own small way I am trying to be the embodiment of joined-up government by seeking to respond to what is essentially a Home Office matter, that of visa extensions, which I had thought lay at the heart of this Question.

The question of how long students are given permission to stay will depend on the documentation given to them by the universities concerned when they present themselves for clearance to entrance clearance officers. If students have documentation that sets out robustly that they need entrance clearance for two or three years, they will be granted clearance for those two or three years. If there are instances where entry clearance officers have not done that, those are corrected by giving a waiver on the extension to the right to remain. That is possible in around 2 per cent of cases. Indeed, I can give the noble Lord details of how to apply for that waiver.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, all those details are extremely helpful, but does the noble Baroness realise that very many overseas students come to university via courses undertaken at colleges of further education? The Association of Colleges has reported that the numbers applying for courses at further education colleges have dropped considerably, and that the cost of visas is one of the main reasons for that fall.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is why I have advised noble Lords that the best way to do this is by applying for entry clearance in the first place. But I quite understand that some students who complete foundation courses and, as a result of being successful on those courses go on to extend their studies, may incur the extra charges. They are incurred through an extension of the leave to remain, which is under review. However, I should point out to noble Lords the fact that, those increased charges notwithstanding, the number of overseas students is rising steadily. We are very pleased that that is the case because it is what the Prime Minister wanted to see in his initiative from 1999. The numbers are still going up.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers. Does my noble friend agree that the question of visas would be substantially eased if visas were issued for specific educational establishments? People would then get a visa and colleges would know exactly what their obligations are. Does she further agree that recently the performance of UK visas has substantially improved and that, in relation to the issue of the original visa, the situation in regard to India and China is much easier than it was some months ago?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that last point because it is certainly the impression that we have in the Foreign Office so far as China is concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, also raised this question. After an initial peaking in the number of refusals because of the unsound nature of the paperwork, the situation has eased and many more people are now coming through the system.

On the issue of specific educational establishments, if a foundation course is being undertaken in one establishment and a student then enrols at another establishment for a further educational course, the other establishment will have to produce the paperwork for the student to extend his or her right to remain in this country.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, the Minister has said several times that the numbers of students are going up. The total value of international students to the economy is in the region of £10 billion a year. There is evidence to show that a steep increase in fees will drive this down. Does the Minister believe that the benefits to the economy should be taken into consideration when considering a steep increase in fees?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that an increase in visa charges will lead to that. Visa charges were last increased in 2002—when the fee went up from £33 to £36—and it did not lead to a decrease in student numbers; in fact there was an increase in student numbers the following year. That charge of £36 compares very favourably with the United States at £60, Australia at £163 and Canada at £53. The real problem lies not with the visa issue but, as my noble friend Lady Warwick indicated, with the extension of the right to remain for students—which is currently under review—where the fees are much higher. Your Lordships would have been able to probe the Question further if it had been somewhat differently drafted and a Home Office Minister was standing here.

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