HL Deb 15 March 2005 vol 670 cc1207-8

3 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harryasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it remains their policy to encourage overseas students to come to English universities for their graduate and postgraduate courses.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, it is very much our policy to attract more international students to the UK. We recognise from the DfES international strategy the success and importance of the Prime Minister's initiative and emphasise our commitment to continue to expand the numbers of international students. We are currently considering a range of options for the recruitment of international students to the UK when the Prime Minister's initiative comes to an end in April.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the council of Sussex University. About 20 per cent of the university's students are international and they make an important contribution to its income and to its international reputation and knowledge.

Will the Minister explain his statement that the Government seriously wish to attract more overseas students, against the background of the Home Secretary's two statements, first, that international students will not be allowed to appeal to an independent agent if their visa application to study here is refused—despite the fact that the Immigration Advisory Service points out that about 65 per cent of such appeals are successful—and, secondly, the rise in visa application charges from £155 to £250 for postal applications and from £250 to £500 for applications in person? Surely such measures are bound to put off young students from trying to come to universities in this country. They will look elsewhere instead.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, yes, I can. First, the regulatory impact assessment, published at the time the Home Office announced those charges, set out why the Home Office did not believe that that would have a significant impact by deterring applications to the UK from students wishing to study here. That is for a good reason; we are seeing growth rates of between 12 and 14 per cent in the number of students coming to the UK.

The second reason is that the appeal right is at this stage only a proposal. We do not recognise the figures of the Immigration Advisory Service from our data. In many cases, it is more sensible for the student to make another application electronically than to go through the delay of an appeal, which can take some months. Above all, I urge the noble Lord and others who have an interest in the matter to cast their eyes to the bigger picture rather than at the narrow tree of this issue, which is obsessing the House, and to look at the massive expansion in the potential of UK education exports over the next two decades. There is a massive market there for us if we can focus on it and seize it.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the London School of Commerce. Is my noble friend aware that overseas students should not only be encouraged to our universities but also to the high quality private providers who are working collaboratively with British universities? Is he also aware that the greatest encouragement to both those entering the universities and the private sector of higher education is the significant progress made in recent months by UK Visas in achieving a much smoother pattern in the issue of UK visas? I hope that my noble friend will assure the House that that progress will continue.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, yes, I can. UK Visas has committed to raising its standards as part of the service. Of course, the fundamental question is how much the noble Lord, Lord Renton, believes that taxpayers should subsidise the cost of administering visas to foreign students. Does he believe that the taxpayers should subsidise them totally or only in part, as we are currently proposing to do? The big issue is the enormous expansion that has taken place in HE and FE education over the past five years. We have almost doubled the value of UK education exports in this country and we intend to go further, in partnership with private sector providers, as was signalled, and we are confident that we will be able to do so, as the Chancellor recently indicated.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report in the current issue of the Economist, which states that overseas student applications to this country have in fact fallen this year by a hefty 5.3 per cent? But is he aware that the universities will at least take heart from what he has said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, about visa appeal matters, just as they took heart when the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, spoke on 8 February (col. 656) on the continuing "availability of an appeals system", the very day Her Majesty's Government announced their plans to remove it?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I never want the House to take too much heart from anything I say from the Dispatch Box. There is a danger of getting the issue out of proportion. The question is how much taxpayers should subsidise foreign students and whether we believe that there will be a continuing expansion in the strength of UK educational exports. Yes, we do.

Furthermore, I would be disappointed if within a month's time we did not announce the next phase of the Prime Minister's initiative on going further in partnership with higher education, further education and business both to attract more students and to look at how we can promote exports of education through other means rather than simply the direct import of students into the country, important though that is.