HL Deb 11 March 2004 vol 658 cc1331-4

11.20 a.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any decisions have been made in relation to charges for visa renewal for overseas students.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we are exploring ways in which we might refine the charging system to ensure that it delivers a fair and efficient service for all our customers. Any proposals including differential charging will be included in the formal consultation later this year. At this stage, however, we cannot guarantee a reduction in the level of fee charged for particular application types, including students.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords. the Minister will recall that, on 4 November, he answered a Question from my noble friend Lord Wallace in which it became clear that there was considerable unease on all sides of the House about the suddenness of the increased charge for student visas from zero to between £150 and £250. Is he aware of that unease? Does he also recall that, because it became clear that little consultation had taken place, he gave a specific commitment that his department would consult the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, the British Council, UK universities and further and higher education colleges? Has any consultation been undertaken and, if not, why not?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Baroness's recollection of the Question is the same as mine. There will be consultation on the setting of future fee levels and services as I made plain. We are fully committed to that. It was a feature of the introduction of the fees that consultation had not been as full as we would have liked, but that was in line with the way in which the legislation was set out. We made plain our intention back in 1999. However, I am happy to confirm that there will be continued dialogue and consultation with UKCOSA and the universities.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, when this Question was last raised does my noble friend recall that I asked whether consideration could be given to allow students to take out a visa for the whole length of their course if it were not possible for a differential fee to be paid? My noble friend promised to have a look at that proposal at the time; I wonder whether there have been any developments along those lines.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have looked again at the response that I gave to the noble Baroness on the first occasion on which we discussed this matter at Question Time. It is one of those issues on which there will be consultation, I am sure. There is a problem with differential charging, because to introduce it would require a sophisticated accounting system and the volumes of applications add to that complexity. The feasibility of differential charging, I am advised, will be included in the scope of phase two of the charging project, which will also take account of the fee review itself.

Lord Lewis of Newnham

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Cambridge Overseas Trust and Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, which are responsible for partially funding more than 800 students from overseas in Cambridge. Is the Minister aware of the urgency of this particular question? In many universities, the majority of students carrying out research for higher degrees are from overseas—in the University of Cambridge, of those studying for higher degrees, approximately two-thirds of those registered are from overseas. The cost of this renewal of visas, especially the retrospective nature of this renewal, must act as a deterrent to many students, especially—I stress this—those from developing countries. This a very serious matter that ought to be given a high degree of urgency.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we take the matter that the noble Lord raises very seriously. We are not aware that it acts as a disincentive to foreign students studying in the United Kingdom, although I appreciate the level of concern that has understandably been expressed because of the introduction of the fees last year. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue in this way and I urge those Members of your Lordships' House who are concerned about this matter to ensure that proper representations are made so that we are as aware as we should be of the impact of any future changes. We should remember, however, that those who apply for a visa now get an extremely good service. We have introduced extremely useful initiatives to speed up the service and ensure that visas are processed quickly.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, what fresh instructions have been given to visa officers about being more flexible about the length of the visas that they issue, especially after studies have been completed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my understanding is that there is greater flexibility so that for very short-term returns immigration officers have some latitude—not a great deal—so that students can return to collect belongings and attend degree ceremonies and so forth.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, following on from that question, has the Minister made a specific assessment of the impact of charges for visa renewal on overseas students making multiple visa applications in order to complete their studies in the UK?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not have that information today. I am happy to interrogate the information that we do have and try to provide the noble Viscount with a response that matches his concerns.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, does the Minister have figures for the total number of overseas students in this country—which is now a large number? Does he agree that it is extremely important to provide a good service and to encourage students from overseas to come to this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I entirely agree. As the noble Lord will know, the Prime Minister launched an initiative in June 1999 directed at increasing student numbers from overseas to the United Kingdom. That initiative has been extremely successful. I understand that, in higher education, there were 109,940 in 1996–97. By 2001–02, there were 142,350. In further education during that time, numbers rose from 25,102 to 47,995. We are moving towards the 2005 targets with a high degree of success. Part of the thinking behind increasing numbers was to ensure that we had an effective visa system in place able rapidly to respond to applications. We now have that.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that students on a three-year course with one-year visas will have to undertake the burden of the cost of renewal? A survey of overseas undergraduates at the LSE last December revealed what appears to be a completely random pattern, with students being given one, two, or three-year visas. Students from the same country were granted visas of different lengths even though the length of their courses of study were exactly the same. The Minister said in your Lordships' House last November that: The length that the visa lasts is very much related to the length of course the student is undertaking".—[Official Report, 4/11/03; col. 683.] Given that, will he explain how that could happen? Clearly, the situation is not as he described it last November.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I hear what the noble Baroness says and I recognise my words from last November—I have reread the Question with care. Other factors may be involved in the applications about which neither the noble Baroness nor myself is aware. The study completed by the LSE is valuable and I urge that its findings and considerations are made available to the review that is continuing. It should form part of the consultation. If issues flow from the study, they are of concern and interest.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, the Minister said that a review was being undertaken, yet, as far as I know, Universities UK has not been consulted on the issue at all. Can he assure us that there really is in his department the urgency behind the issue that has been expressed around the House?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am slightly puzzled by what the noble Baroness has to say with regard to Universities UK, as my understanding that it is part of the consultation process, as is UKCOSA, which is obviously another important body in that regard. I shall check again to ensure that that is the case, but I would certainly hope that it is.