In this contribution to the debate Lord Bilimoria first responds to criticism of the House of Lords by the Prime Minister by stressing its importance and its ability to gather such a high degree of expertise through its members. He praises Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for Universities and notes the national consensus that international students should not be included in the net migration figures. Furthermore he asks why the UK does not class international students as temporary migrants when other countries such as Canada and Germany do.  He concludes by stressing that not removing international students from the net migration figures is harming the reputation of the UK, its universities and harming its economy.

Higher Education and Research Bill

27 April 2017

Motion G moved by Viscount Leckie:

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 156 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 156A, 156B and 156C in lieu.

Lord Bilimoria:

My Lords, I echo much of what the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said, but I want to start with the reference that the Prime Minister made to the “unelected House of Lords” when she announced the election. This unelected House is at its best when it does what it has done with this Bill. It is probably one of the most amended Bills in the history of Parliament, with more than 500 amendments, and that is because of the expertise that exists across the board in this House—a breadth and depth of expertise that no other Chamber in the world comes anywhere close to by a factor of maybe 10. A former Universities Minister has just spoken and we have heard from chancellors and vice-chancellors of universities, former vice-chancellors of universities such as Cambridge and the heads of Oxbridge colleges—and I could go on. Where in the world would you get that? We have had it with this Bill.

I thank the Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, for having always been polite and decent, and for having listened. We may not be where a lot of us want to be, but the Government have listened and there has been a lot of movement. I, too, acknowledge the commitment of the Minister, Jo Johnson. I have never seen a Minister so assiduous in attending the stages of a Bill in the way that he has with this one, and it shows visibly that he is listening. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for the initiative that he has taken on this amendment. He is a former pro-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, where today I am proud to be chancellor.

Normally, you are not meant to repeat things at various stages of a Bill—you cannot make another Second Reading speech later on. However, in this case new information and new reports have been coming out at every stage. For example, the UUK report suddenly revealed that the contribution of international students is much higher than we had ever thought. Figures of £13 billion or £14 billion were quoted, but the figure is actually £26 billion a year. That is new information to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was trying to do with this amendment. On top of that, we have had, hot off the press, the Education Committee’s report entitled Exiting the EU: Challenges and Opportunities for Higher Education, dated 25 April.

Before I go any further, there is a unanimous consensus around the country—let alone in this House, where we won this amendment by close to 100 votes—that international students should not be included in the net migration figures. The National Union of Students has stated:

“We are concerned that—as long as international students are included within net migration statistics—policies that adversely impact international students owing to the Government’s desire to reduce levels of immigration will only exacerbate”.

It also said:

“The Government’s abject failure to offer anything substantial on removing international students from net migration targets is”,

in its words,

“outrageous. There is immense support for doing so, from cross-party parliamentarians, from UK students and from the general public. It is unacceptable that the government continues to ignore this support”.

I come to the House of Commons Education Committee’s report, which no one has spoken about and which has just been published—on 25 April. It contains a whole section on international students and the migration target. It says very clearly that the 100,000 target still exists, yet we all know that the latest figure for overall net migration is 273,000. The excuse that the Government give every time we challenge them to remove international students from the net migration figures is that the UN rules mean that we have to include them and treat them as immigrants—and those are indeed the UN rules.

The Government’s other answer is always, “There is no cap on the number of international students. Any number is welcome”. However, the danger lies in the perception that is created by continuing to include them in the figure and treat them as immigrants. The Home Secretary at the Conservative Party conference spoke about possibly reducing the number of international students. That is scary—and it is a message that goes to the outside world. The Commons Education Committee said the majority of its written evidence and witnesses at its meetings were very clear that international students should be removed from the net migration target, which would,

“help offset risks to higher education from leaving the EU”.

It continued:

“Our evidence was unanimous in saying that international students were a positive force”,

for education, contributing £25.8 billion a year and creating more than 200,000 jobs, and contributing to the richness of our universities, as well as to the UK’s soft power.

There has been poll after poll on this issue. After the referendum, a ComRes poll said that only 24% of the public thought that international students were immigrants, and there was only a 2% difference between those who voted to leave, at 25%, and those who voted to remain, at 23%. So whether they are Brexiteers or remainers, people do not think that international students are immigrants. The report points out:

“71% said they would support policies to boost growth by increasing overseas students”.

Our competitor countries have targets to increase the number of international students. The demand from countries such as India for studying abroad is increasing by 8% a year, yet an NUS poll found that slightly over half of overseas students thought that the British Government were either not welcoming or not welcoming at all to international students. There are half as many Indian students in 2015 compared with the number in 2010. Yet in countries such as Australia, Canada and Germany the number is growing by 8% a year.

Can the Minister please answer this question? When the UK’s main competitors for international students—the United States, Canada and Australia—all categorise international students as temporary migrants rather than permanent immigrants, why can we not do the same? What are we scared of? The noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Hannay, and the Minister spoke of statistics. What statistics? The statistics are bogus because they are based on the International Passenger Survey. Some estimates suggest that 90,000 international students overstay; others put the figure at 40,000. Yet the Times has reported that there is a Home Office-commissioned report that shows that only 1% of international students overstay their visas—only 1,500. But this report has not been released. Can the Minister tell us why?

The figures in the report are supposedly based on the Government’s new exit checks. I have been a lone voice in this Parliament and I feel like a lone voice in this country in asking the Government to bring back physical, visible exit checks at all our ports, airports and borders. Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, took them away in 1998. That was negligent from a security point of view, negligent from an illegal immigration point of view, and negligent from the point of view of being able to count the number of international students coming in and out of this country. Every passport, EU and non-EU, should be scanned when people enter the country, and every passport, EU and non-EU, should be scanned when people leave the country. If that happened, we would know the correct statistics. Why can the Government not implement this straight away?

In conclusion, the committee said:

“Over the last few years, six parliamentary committees have recommended the removal of students from the net migration target”,

and opinions have been expressed at the highest level. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke about Boris Johnson. I believe that even the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, agrees that international students should not be treated as immigrants and should be removed from the net migration figures.

Margaret Thatcher was famous as the lady who was “not for turning”. The Prime Minister, by continually saying that there would be no election until 2020, is, I think, “for turning”. So why is she not listening to us? It is such a disappointment. It is ruining the reputation of our country, our universities and our economy—and perception becomes reality. This provision did not need to be in the Bill. The Government and the Prime Minister can still act unilaterally and remove international students from the net migration figures. I remind the Prime Minister and the Government of the maxim that it is better to fail doing the right thing than to succeed doing the wrong thing.

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