HL Deb 08 February 2005 vol 669 cc655-7

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for a further programme when the Prime Minister's initiative of 1999 to attract more international students comes to an end in April.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, in the Department for Education and Skills international strategy, we recognised the importance of that initiative. We are currently considering a range of options for the recruitment of international students when the Prime Minister's initiative comes to an end at the end of April, in consultation with our funding partners and other stakeholders.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging response. The Prime Minister's initiative of 1999 has been of enormous benefit, primarily, of course, to UK universities, but also to other institutions, not least the private sector English language schools. However, does the Minister accept that the need now is greater than ever with such factors as the increased competition from the United States, as American universities recover from the setback to student numbers following 9/11, and from many other countries, including several within the European continent? Indeed, have not the Government introduced unwelcome help for the competition by imposing heavy visa charges on students wanting to enter for study in this country?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, that it is essential that we continue in our efforts. It is true that we are doing so in an increasingly competitive environment. Some European countries are now teaching in English to encourage students to come and there is competition around the world, although some countries that have been doing very well in the past—I think of the United States and Australia—have, for different reasons, been doing rather worse recently. America has imposed a very strict security regime around its visas. That has discouraged a number of students.

We compete on quality. We have a very high quality higher education system. That is the principal fact that we must ensure that people around the world know, and that is one reason why our figures are still rising.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, can my noble friend not answer the last part of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, by giving us a progress report on visa charges?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I shall certainly do so. Yesterday, the Home Office announced that the visa charge would rise to £250. I have looked carefully at the background detail in the regulatory impact document to ensure that I understand the basis of the charging. The Home Office has said that, even on that basis, it will not recover the full cost, a point made in the regulatory impact assessment. The full cost is £335. On that basis, students will, in effect, receive a supplement of £85 towards that cost paid by the taxpayer. I say to noble Lords who are naturally concerned about the issue that it is well worth reading the regulatory impact document, because all the detail of the total price is there.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, why is it, therefore, that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to charge only £36 for a visa applied for from overseas, whereas the Home Office is now charging—as the Minister says, at a subsidised price—£250?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, that is the price for a visa to continue to stay. I should probably try the patience of the House if I went through all the items that go towards that, but I make the point that the whole of the administration—the cross-checking, the availability of an appeals system and many other factors—is contained in the regulatory impact document. The case is made out in detail, which gives everyone the chance to explore it and judge it for himself.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government have to do nothing to encourage international students to go to our universities, as, from now on, every university will recruit more international students at the expense of British students? That is the inevitable consequence of the Government's policy. Perhaps he would listen to the words of the chancellor of Oxford University, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who said that universities should be free to charge whatever they want, provided scholarship schemes are in place.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, an unrestrained fee regime has been advocated in this House in major debates recently. All noble Lords know that we will not go that way; I said that only a short while ago.

It does not help us at all to paint a picture of despair. In making the initiative work, the Government started in 1997 with a base year of non-European international students of 109,940. We now have 174,575. We had a target increase of 50,000; in fact, we have increased by 64,635. That can hardly be evidence of anything going dramatically wrong.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, in declaring an interest as chief executive of Universities UK, I reiterate the concern expressed about the impact of the charges announced yesterday on recruitment in a highly competitive market. Will the Government undertake to carry out a review of the effect of those charges on the recruitment of international students?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, there is a constant review of the way in which fees in general and costs are changing. The impact of this change on the costs of students in an average year in higher education—averages can be deceiving but it is the only way to address the issue—will be 1.5 per cent. Although I am not complacent about sustaining competition in our universities, in comparison with others around the world, it is unlikely to override people's desire to come here for the high quality of the degrees and postgraduate work that they undertake.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, does the noble Lord appreciate that in 40 per cent of universities the number of overseas students has dropped, not increased? Is that good government?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, universities offer a very wide range of programmes. As the noble Baroness knows, what they offer is entirely a matter for them. In some cases they have been very successful; in other cases, less successful. It is all in the face of widespread international competition as everybody tries to get into the international student market. As a country and a system of higher education, taking the UK as a whole—there is no difference across the home nations in this respect—we have done extraordinarily well and greatly exceeded targets that many thought would be impossible to achieve.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

My Lords, has the regulatory impact statement taken account of the extent to which those costs fall on UK charities which support overseas students in one way and another, particularly at the end of their courses, when they need extension visas?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the modelling is there—and in detail—in the regulatory impact report. I urge noble Lords to read the report, and, if those are still matters of anxiety, to return to them.

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