MPs debate student visa changes with immigration minister
20 June 2011

Around 25 MPs from constituencies all over the country took part in a wide-ranging Commons debate on student visa changes.

Paul Blomfield, the Sheffield MP who secured the special debate, said there were "significant points of concern" about the new visa regime which universities and colleges believed would threaten recruitment and therefore damage the economy. "The Home Office impact assessment, published on Monday, demonstrated that the proposals were likely to cost the UK economy a shocking £2.4 billion, and perhaps up to £3.6 billion," he said.

Mr Blomfield said the UK's reputation abroad was being damaged by the perception that it was not open for business. Ministers said good government was about making changes to get things right, and student visas were such an area. He was concerned about the speed with which the language requirements were being imposed on universities which had already made offers for the coming academic year. He was also concerned about the maximum length of study and the post-study work route, partly because jobs had to be paying more than £20,000 a year which was not realistic in many areas or fields.

Several MPs wanted to raise awareness of the particular problems being experienced by English language schools and independent colleges. Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw asked whether Mr Blomfield agreed that the impact of the new rules was "devastating" for English language schools in his constituency. "They have already been devastated in terms of applications as a result of the changes. If we look at the turnout today, the geographical spread of Members' constituencies, and the number of them present, shows that there is a serious problem that the Government need to get a grip on," he said. Edinburgh's Mark Lazarowicz agreed, saying many MPs had attended the debate because of their concerns about the many reputatable and high quality English language schools being affected even more seriously than the universities by the changes, warning: "The Government must change their proposals if those schools are to survive."

Oxford MP Andrew Smith said: "Overseas students are absolutely vital in Oxford both for the universities and the many language schools. Is not one damaging feature of what the Government have done the erection of this huge bureaucratic maze through which institutions have to go? Would Government Members not be complaining rightly about red tape if this applied to any other area of exports? Clearly this issue has been exempted from the red tape moratorium. Is not the answer to bring forward a system that combines highly trusted status, proper inspection and a proper operation of country risk profiles?"

Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter added: "I have several language schools and other schools in my constituency that are suffering, so I know that there is great competition internationally in this field. We were ahead of the game and now we are behind it. That is causing not only reputational damage but genuine economic damage to very good schools, which may go under because the Government are sending out all the wrong signals." Leith's cookery school in his constituency had just had its visa places reduced from 20 to 3. "We are now becoming a bit of a laughing stock in the international market because the Government are constantly chopping and changing in accordance with a political agenda, which is undermining education in this country."

Rob Wilson, the Reading East MP, said his office had surveyed the 16 Tier 4 sponsors in his constituency, all of which had stressed the crucial importance of HTS. "The independent sector in particular felt that its future literally depended on such status. While the private colleges accepted the need to tackle bogus students, they expressed great concern about the UK Border Agency's inspection process. The perceived problems largely emanated from the lack of formal criteria from the UKBA of what was necessary to achieve and retain that trusted or highly trusted status. Additionally, some expressed concern about the understanding, even the ignorance, of some inspectors about how the independent sector operated. For example, in the experience of one college, the UKBA inspector expected a desk and a seat for every single student enrolled, despite a student normally being expected to be in attendance for no more than 15 hours per week,"

He said the most frequent call he heard from colleges was for a level playing field. Universities had HTS as a default, but many would lose this if they shared the same rigorous expectations as private colleges on drop-out rates, for example. "Transparency is essential for a fair and effective inspection regime, but a real concern is that colleges get no debriefing following inspection, as schools do with Ofsted. Inspection reports may be obtained through freedom of information requests, but that procedure is not really quick enough. Targeting efforts on the least trustworthy colleges in the unregulated private sector is right, but we should also remember that only a tiny minority of colleges are bogus. I hope that the new proposals will not put private colleges at a disadvantage by failing to set out clear criteria for highly trusted sponsors or with the somewhat arbitrary and opaque inspection and even evaluation process."

Woking MP Jonathan Lord said private colleges in his constituency thought things were stacked against them, with constant rule changing costing time and money. Not only did they have to reach a higher bar on drop-out rates than publicly-funded institutions, but their students were not allowed to work.

"That will make it very difficult for private colleges to compete with publicly funded universities, both internationally and in the UK, and to attract foreign students. A student's ability to work during their studies has no effect on net migration, but removal of the right to work will have an impact on the number of genuine students who are interested in coming to the UK to study," he said.

His points were taken up forcefully by Scunthorpe MP Nic Dakin, who until last year was principal of a sixth-form college which took international students. "There is a lack of a level playing field between FE and sixth-form colleges, and those independent schools that—quite properly—are also active in the market. … I call only for a level playing field and for fair treatment for different providers."

Keith Vaz, too, worried about the damage to English language colleges, but, like many others in the debate, said it was important to be tough on bogus colleges. He called for proper and unannounced inspections and more power for entry clearance officers. "When we are dealing with people who genuinely want to come to study, the Government should stop, consider and reflect, because of the potential damage to our reputation as the greatest country in the world for education. That reputation was the reason why my family chose to come here when I was nine years of age. They chose to come here because of this country's reputation for valuing education. Let us not damage our reputation. Let us make sure that our rules and policies are clear and transparent, but fair."

Another point raised by Leicester MP Keith Vaz and repeated by others was whether or not students should be counted as migrants. Paul Blomfield said: "I very much agree with him about the specific point that he has just made, namely that we should not consider international students as migrants. Certainly immigration is an issue and when I talk to people on the doorstep in my constituency they express concern about it, but nobody has ever expressed to me any concern about students being in Sheffield.

"I know that the Minister, when he addresses this issue, will say that we are bound by the requirements of the United Nations, which defines migrants as those travelling to another country for more than 12 months. However, our main competitor in this market is the USA and it has chosen not to define students as migrants."

Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson, however, defended the Government's visa changes. "The Home Office concedes that one in five students in higher education and on pre-degree-level courses will become a de facto economic migrant, and therefore the complete fiscal impact, given the net rise in immigration, will clearly include an effect on the public purse and on the delivery of important public services," he said, adding his view that universities did not have a narrow remit to educate their paying customers but "a social responsibility to educate the people of this country appropriately."

He said there should be a cost-benefit analysis for the wider community and that these decisions were essentially about wide-scale migration. "The policy has been flexible and there has been appropriate consultation. It is aimed principally at bogus students and overstayers," he said, adding: "We see that because of our reputation and because we have the kudos of being a principal centre of superb higher education in the world, the demand for people across the world will remain high, whether for chemical engineering, languages, dentistry or humanities…on the face of it, yes, institutions will lose £105 million due to students not coming, but we must make the link and look at the opportunity cost—the displacement of indigenous people, who are British citizens, who are not in work and are on benefits as a result of jobs being taken by people who began as students but entered the work force. It is foolish to disregard that."

Winding up the debate, immigration minister Damian Green defended the policy and the new regulations, saying that he expected the number of student visas to reduce by about 70,000 a year. "We must repeat the basic point that there are so many abuses of the system that we need radical reform. Many colleges seem happy to accept students who do not even meet their own admissions criteria and who speak very little English. …We are targeting the least compliant students and institutions, and of course that is what we should do. For too long, institutions in parts of the privately funded education sector have been essentially unregulated, yet all the evidence suggests that those institutions pose the biggest risk to immigration control. In a sample of tier 4 students studying at private institutions about which the UKBA had concerns, up to 26% could not be accounted for."

While it would be "fantastically convenient" to remove students from the definition of migrants, and there was clearly an academic argument to be had, Mr Green said that was not realistic and he did not think the public would accept it.


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