In this speech Lord Bilimoria discusses the importance of Higher Education to the UK economy and the vital role that foreign born students play. He states that the Government’s refusal to remove international students from the net migration figures is based on a mistaken belief that the British people want to reduce all immigration. This makes employment within the UK for foreign students after graduation more difficult in comparison to the United States or Canada. He concludes that the Government need to change their attitude towards international students as it is harmful and undermining. With a change of attitude the UK can remain an educational superpower.

Immigration: Overseas Students

17 November 2016

Moved by Lord Lucas: 

That this House takes note of the application of immigration policy to overseas students at United Kingdom universities and colleges. He notes that there is a difficulty in staying in and working in the UK after graduation for foreign students in comparison to other nations.

Lord Bilimoria: 

My Lords, I came to the UK as a student from India as a 19 year-old in the early 1980s. Our universities here are the best in the world, along with those of the United States. The university that has won more Nobel Prizes than any other is the University of Cambridge, with nearly 100. I am the third generation of my family to be educated here and now our elder son is at a British university—Cambridge—so that is the fourth generation. I am proud to be chancellor of the University of Birmingham and chair of the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School. I am also president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, UKCISA, representing the 450,000 international students in this country, along with 160,000 from the EU.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for initiating this debate at this crucial time. Our higher education is, of course, vital to our economy. It is one of our biggest exports. International students contribute directly and indirectly £14 billion to our economy and support 137,000 full-time equivalent jobs. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said in her excellent maiden speech, they also enrich the experience of our domestic students. Our international students go on to become world leaders. At any time there are 30 world leaders from British universities, including former US presidents. Dr Manmohan Singh, a former Prime Minister of India, went to both Oxford and Cambridge.

What is more, a study carried out in the United States found that of all patents registered at the country’s top 10 patent-generating universities, 76% had a foreign-born inventor. Google, after all, was created by an immigrant. Silicon Valley is littered with foreign student success stories. What chance do we have of emulating that here? Higher education has always been a thoroughly international affair. As we have heard, research has never recognised international boundaries and diversity is recognised for contributing to new ideas and a divergent way of thinking. Thirty per cent of academics at our top universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and Birmingham, are foreign. Professor Alice Gast of Imperial College said:

“Foreigners improve the creativity and productivity of home-grown talent, too”.

The number of university students looking to study abroad is growing vastly. It is expected to grow from 4.1 million to 8 million by 2025. The UK has the second-highest number of them after the United States: 10% as against 19%. But the Government’s attitude to international students has seen our rivals steal a march on us. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said, I was in India when Prime Minister Theresa May was there. She did not mention higher education once in her speech. As the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the other hand, spoke of the importance of education to Indian students. By the way, our Prime Minister did not once meet the 35 university leaders who were on the delegation to India. On the other hand, our Universities Minister Jo Johnson is a true champion of our British universities.

Australia, Canada and the United States all have strategies to increase the number of international students. Canada aims to double their number by 2020, while Australia wants to increase international students to 720,000 by 2025. In fact, the former Australian Education Minister Christopher Pyne went so far as to thank Britain for its immigration policies because they are driving so many students to Australia’s universities.

That applies not only to English-speaking universities. Indian students are now going to Holland, Sweden, Germany and France. France has a target of doubling the number of Indian students by 2020. The UK Government say that they want to increase the number of international students but there is no specific target. The Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, said that she wanted international students to leave the day they graduated. The headline in Indian newspapers was:

“Come to the UK: Graduate, and then get the hell out!”.

The Government have spoken of increasing education exports from £18 billion to £30 billion but there is no specific target and no plan to change the visa rules. The post-study work visa route, which I personally championed in this House in 2007 when the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was Education Minister, was implemented and the numbers went up significantly. It was taken away in 2012 and we have seen the effect on the number of foreign students. At the moment you can stay on and work but, with so much bureaucracy, it is very difficult to get a job after graduating. Can the Minister tell us how many foreign students are now staying on under the postgraduate work visa scheme that currently exists?

On the other hand, in the United States students can stay on for 12 months without a job offer; Canada allows them to remain in the country for the same duration as the length of their study; and Australia allows graduates to remain in the country for between two and four years. In surveys, the British public overwhelmingly say that they do not mind at all if foreign students stay on and work. There is no downside to it. It helps them to pay for their education; it gives them work experience; they contribute taxes; and they build generation-long bridges with this country. With this in mind, it is no wonder that the number of non-EU students has dropped by 2% and that the number from India has halved in the last four years, while in America it has increased by 9%—and the fastest-growing group of foreign students in America is the group from India, whose number is up by almost 25%.

As we have heard, the Government refuse to remove international students from the net migration figures. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will look into this? It would send a signal that they do not treat international students as immigrants. We desperately need the 160,000 EU students to come and study here in the UK. Can the Government tell us the plans for these students if we leave the European Union?

I think that the Government are being led by a mistaken belief that the British people want to reduce all immigration. There is good immigration and bad immigration, and international students should be encouraged. Almost 80% of the British population want international students to stay on and work in the UK after they finish their studies. The rhetoric surrounding Brexit is just awful. On the other hand, I hear from my colleagues at American universities that Indian graduates go on to earn salaries of $80,000 in Texas and $100,000 in California. Here, it is claimed that 90,000 students overstay. This is based on International Passenger Survey data and it is bogus. We should have visible exit checks at our borders. Can the Minister tell us when we are going to introduce them? The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, mentioned an unpublished report referred to in the Times which shows that only 1.5% of international students stay on.

In conclusion, India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Today, British universities are the jewel in the crown of this country. The Government need to change their attitude towards international students, because the impact of Brexit and the uncertainty it has caused are damaging the higher education sector, and the Government’s attitude is harmful and undermining. I think that the attitude to immigration is economically illiterate and that the Government’s attitude to international students is economically super-illiterate. If the Government change their attitude, we will remain an educational superpower for the foreseeable future, with international students being our strongest element of soft power in the world.

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