Speaking in a debate concerning higher education in the United Kingdom, Lord Bilimoria spoke out against a number of restrictions on student numbers, especially those concerning the fall in student numbers as a consequence of immigration policy. He noted the increased competition that British universities face from foreign competitors, as well as the need for the government to increase spending on research and development in order to bring the United Kingdom closer to the OECD average.
My Lords, last Friday, Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan—known as “Venki”—the winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry 2009, joint chair of the structural studies centre at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity College, received an award at the Asian Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel for outstanding achievement in science and technology. In his acceptance speech, he said:
“I was very touched by the Prime Minister who gave us such a warm welcome address in a video message earlier this evening but I have to say, over the past 10 years, the level of xenophobia and anti- immigration rhetoric has been ramming up—visa laws are increasingly restrictive, so that’s hard for us senior scientists to attract the best talent! They do not see necessarily that actually Britain is really a wonderful place. I get offers regularly to go back to the U.S and I always decline, because I love working here. That perception has to be changed and can only come” from the Government changing their policies on immigration. There I end the quote from one of the world’s great scientists.
Foreign academics make up 30% of all the academics at our top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and foreign students are some of our most talented undergraduates and postgraduates. If people such as Professor Ramakrishnan are saying things like this, who knows how many future Nobel Prize winners are choosing not to take up a position at our universities?
I am an alumnus through executive education of the Harvard Business School. In January, I was present for a speech that the president of Harvard University, Professor Drew Gilpin Faust, gave to her university’s London alumni at the Guildhall. Professor Faust made it very clear that Harvard would make the best effort to attract the best students and academics from around the world. She said:
“The future we face together, the future we shape, will depend perhaps most of all on who we are and who we will be. Attracting and supporting the most promising students and faculty are crucial to all we aspire to do. When we think of what Harvard has meant to the world, we inevitably find ourselves focusing on people: the extraordinary individuals to define our identity and embody our aims”.
There you have it: the president of Harvard making it absolutely clear that her university will do whatever it takes to get the best academics and the best students, regardless of their social or economic background or their ability to pay. In July 2010, Nitin Nohria became the 10th dean of Harvard Business School. Nitin Nohria is an Indian who studied at the Indian Institute of Technology before going to the United States to study at MIT. In July, a fellow Indian academic, Rakesh Khurana, will take over as the new dean of Harvard College.
That is what we are competing against, and that is an example from just one university abroad. How easy it would be for us to lose our stars, such as Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, when the likes of Harvard have an ethos such as that. The competition is not coming just from the United States. Canada is on an aggressive recruitment drive for international students. Australia and New Zealand are both attracting thousands of students from India, China, Korea and Japan to study in Sydney, Melbourne and Christchurch. Why are we not following their lead in trying to attract the best and brightest overseas students to our country?
The threat is not just from the Anglosphere. The French Government are moving to simplify the visa application process for international students. The ministry for education in France has just announced that it plans to double the number of Indian students at France’s universities by the end of the decade. Why do not our Government set a target to double the number of international students? Why do not they set a target of any sort to attract more international students, let alone from countries such as India?
The situation is not good. For the first time ever, our total student numbers are down. In a rush to reduce net migration to tens of thousands by the next election, the Government have succeeded in convincing some of the world’s most talented young minds that Britain does not want them. A report last week from the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that international and EU student numbers decreased by 4,595 in 2012-13, the first such decline since 1985. That followed a survey from the National Union of Students in January showing that 51% of international students found the Government unwelcoming. In 2012-13, meanwhile, the number of Indian postgraduate students at Russell group universities declined by 18%. That is worrying news when the Department for Business said that education exports were worth £15 billion. That is wonderful news, but it makes the position all the more absurd when we are finally seeing signs of economic recovery.
Just today, we have heard that we are the fastest-growing economy in the developed world. If we want that to be sustainable, we need to invest in research and development.
We spend a fraction of the OECD average on R&D funding. The Minister says that the Government have preserved their funding for research, but the Times Higher Education Supplement points out that, according to the Office for National Statistics, the UK spent 1.72% of GDP on R&D in 2012, down from 1.77% in 2011. Can the Minister confirm that?
At the moment, that places us in a miserable position in the EU 28 group. We are currently 12th, behind countries such as Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic. Finland spends the highest proportion of its GDP on R&D at 3.55%, but even the EU average is 2.06%, and we are well below that. Investing just an extra 0.5% of GDP in science would make such a huge difference and should be a priority. That would give us the competitive edge for sustainable growth.
The fact is that our great universities—we have many—are succeeding despite, not because of government policy. The changes to student loans will come back to bite us. When the Government announced the changes to the system in 2010, they said that only a small number of universities would charge the new maximum of £9,000, tripled overnight from £3,000, and that the new system would create a more sustainable market-based environment in our universities, which would be better funded than ever. On all those measures, the scheme has failed. Only last month, the Government quietly announced that about 45% of university graduates will not earn enough or will not be able to repay their student loans. If the figure is only slightly out and reaches 48.6%, the Government’s own experts calculate that the Government will lose more money than they gained by increase in fees in England to £9,000 a year. Can the Minister confirm that?
The result of this is clear. Universities are no better off, students are worse off and the Government will end up having to pay even more to fund higher education than they did under the old system. The Government said in 2010 that the changes would allow for a free market of choices between courses and that competitive universities would prosper. There is no free market: almost all the universities are having to charge almost the maximum £9,000 for courses, when previously the Government said that only a minority would. The reason is that when the Government tripled the fees, they reduced the funding to universities and withdrew teaching funding almost entirely. Will the Minister concede that this was a big mistake? Can he tell us how many of the universities are charging near that £9,000 and what proportion of students are paying it? I am excluding the expensive courses, such as medical courses.
As I said in a debate that this House had on the Immigration Bill, the Government’s madcap immigration cap has harmed us. Over the past year, the number of Indian students has fallen by 25%. That is also partly because of the abolition of the two-year post-study work visa. Every time that I talk to foreign students they say, “If only we could have that ability to work for two years”. The current system is not easy when they have hardly any time to find a job. It is too difficult but that two-year post-study work visa really helped them to pay for their expensive education, gain some work experience and continue to build generation-long links with their countries. It did not help to have “Go Home” vans or the £3,000 bond, which were, thankfully, scrapped. These messages are sending out completely the wrong image: that this Government do not want international students. I wholeheartedly agree that the Government need to clamp down on illegal immigration and must continue to do so. However, that does not mean that we should harm the good immigration, particularly in our universities, which are desperately in need of academics and students.
Speaking recently, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Professor Madeleine Atkins, said:
“International students enrich our universities and colleges—and our society—academically, culturally, and through their contribution to the economy. Supporting high-quality international education is a crucial part of ensuring that the UK continues to engage with, and benefit from, the increasingly interconnected world”.
The higher education sector is one of the jewels in the United Kingdom’s crown, as all of us who work within higher educationknow.I am privileged to be associated with a number of universities. I sit on three university business school boards: Cambridge, Birmingham and Cranfield. I also have appointments at Cambridge. I know that this tiny country, with less than 1% of the world’s population, has six of the top 20 universities in the world according to the latest QS rankings. There is higher attainment by ethnic minoritystudents than ever before and our universities will continue to dominate the international rankings, but these achievements have not been borne out by government policy, which is lagging behind. The Prime Minister is fond of referring to Britain as being in a global race for growth, trade and investment. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition between the Government’s economic and immigration policies more closely resembles a three-legged race.
I conclude that if we want to have a sustainable, competitive economy, yes, we need better school education and skills but our higher education is a crucial priority and must continue to be so. We must invest more in higher education as a proportion of GDP, from both public and private sources. We need to remove student immigration from the immigration figures. Can the Minister say whether the Government are going to do this? Our competitors do not include figures for student immigration within their immigration figures: the United States does not, nor does Canada or Australia. Can the Government also ensure that the two-year work permit is brought back in, so that students can work after they finish their studies, and that we invest more in R&D as a percentage of GDP than we currently do? Then we will stand a chance of competing in the global race.