In this contribution to the debates on amendments Lord Bilimoria states his support for the amendment and discusses international students and their importance to the UK as well as the global environment for Higher Education and notes the incentives by other countries to attract international students to them. He argues that it is economic illiteracy not to promote international students. He concludes by stressing the importance and the need for international students.

Higher Education and Research Bill

13 March 2017

Report 3rd Day:

Discussion of Amendments starting with Amendment 144. At the time Lord Bilimoria spoke the discussion was of Amendment 150

Lord Bilimoria:

My Lords, I declare my interest as a former international student and the third generation of my family in India to be educated in this country. I am chair of the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School, which has just been ranked No. 5 in the FT global MBA rankings. As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, our universities are the best in the world along with those of the United States of America.

I wholeheartedly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is not with us. The amendment refers to more than international students and talks about competition from other countries in terms of collaboration as well. That point should not be missed. I have made the point many times that at the University of Birmingham, where I am proud to be chancellor, when we carry out collaborative research with a university such as Harvard—I am proud to be an alumnus of the Harvard Business School—it has three times the impact of our individual research. Therefore, it is essential that we do that, particularly given the European Union referendum and the potential of Brexit coming up.

There are accusations that international students overstay. Can the Minister confirm that a Home Office report has shown that only 1% to 1.5% of international students overstay? If he will not answer that question, will he say why the Government continually refuse to put in visible exit checks at our borders? If we scanned the passport—EU and non-EU—of every person coming into this country, and the passport of every person—EU and non-EU—going out of this country, we would know who was coming in and who was going out, particularly with regard to international students. I urge the Minister to say why the Government are not doing this.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, the global environment is one in which the international student demand from countries such as India is increasing by 8% year on year. We have no target to increase the number of international students. This amendment very clearly says that the Government need to make that a priority. I go further and say that there should be a target. Countries such as France, for example, have a specific target to double the number of students from India by 2020. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay,said, the number of Indian students went up to nearly 40,000 around 2010. It has now dropped by over 50%. Canada, the United States and Australia all have programmes to increase the number of international students. In fact, Australia has a Minister for international students. Last year in India, the Australian high commissioner said to me, “Thank you for your immigration policy on international students. You’re sending them to us instead”. That is ridiculous.

We now face competition from European Union countries. Non-English speaking countries such as Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands—I have already mentioned France—are incentivising international students. Why cannot we accept this amendment once and for all to make international students a priority? Given the backdrop of Brexit, that is even more important. A survey last year said that 82% of EU students and 35% of non-EU students reported that they would find the UK less attractive as a result of Brexit. This means that some 50,000 EU students and 63,000 non-EU students could be at risk. The proof of the pudding comes from the latest indication that fewer EU students have applied to start university courses in the UK. According to UCAS, there was a 9% fall in the number who had applied for courses. At Cambridge, we know that the figure has dropped by 14%.

I am also president of UKCISA, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, which represents the 450,000 international students in this country, of whom 130,000 are from the EU. UKCISA’s response to the EU referendum result was very clear. It said that it sends,

“worrying signals to thousands of EU (and indeed British students hoping to participate in EU mobility programmes) but given the government’s relentless pressure to cut net migration (including curbs on international students) it is … not surprising that this has been the result”.

I am co-chair, along with Paul Blomfield in the House of Commons, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students. Our purpose is to recognise the global prominence of UK education, to promote the value of international students, to promote, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, the soft power of international students, to raise awareness of issues that affect international students and, in reference to the amendment of my noble friend Lord Hannay, to provide a platform for collaboration.

Before I conclude, perhaps I may give a specific example. Following the Committee stage, last week at the University of Birmingham I chaired the annual meeting of our annual court, at which we highlighted that not only one-third of our academics, of whom 18% are from the EU, but a quarter of our students, including from the EU, are international. We have just released an independently prepared impact report on our university. It highlights that:

“Eight additional international undergraduate students would add £1m to the economy”.

That is what we are talking about. It is economic illiteracy not to promote international students and to send out signals that they are not welcome here. At Birmingham, according to this impact report, our international students contribute £160 million to the economy, and they are advocates and ambassadors for Birmingham. They are also ambassadors for the UK around the world, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said.

Just last week—again, since Committee—UUK released a report on international students. It said:

“International students are vital for a successful post-Brexit, industrial strategy fit for a global Britain”.

It also spoke about the element of soft power. At any one time there are 30 world leaders who have been educated at British universities. The report also—this point has not been made so far—spoke about a ComRes public opinion poll for Universities UK which suggests that the public do not view students as immigrants. It said:

“Only 23% of Remain voters and 25% of Leave voters view international students as immigrants. Of those that expressed a view, 75% say they would like to see the same number, or more, of international students in the UK. Of those who expressed a view, 71% would support a policy to help boost growth by increasing overseas students. This polling suggests that current visa policy is not addressing public concerns”.

I would go one step further: this poll suggests that the Government are entirely out of line with public opinion when it comes to international students. I need only mention the current, and first Indian, president of the Royal Society, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan—Nobel laureate and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Universities UK does not argue that students in the UK should not be counted. I do not think that anyone here is saying that; we are saying that they should not be included in a net migration target. Our direct competitors categorise international students as temporary citizens. In the United States they are classified as non-immigrants alongside tourists, business visitors and those in cultural exchange programmes. In Australia they are classified as temporary migrants alongside tourists and visitors, and in Canada they are classified as temporary residents. These are our direct competitors. If they can do it, why cannot we?

Every time this issue has been brought up in this House, there has been unanimous cross-party support for taking international students out of the net migration figures, but the Government are not listening, the Prime Minister is not listening and the Home Office is not listening. So what option do we have? The only option is legislation and I urge noble Lords to support this amendment. Net migration figures create a perception that has unfortunately become reality in putting off international students. They must be a priority for our universities, for our economy, for our position in the world, for our domestic students and, more importantly with this uncertain future, for our whole country.

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