A "lively debate" is going on within Government with "robust arguments" on what decisions should be made on the future of student visas, said senior LibDem MP Simon Hughes at the launch of a new report on the subject.
"If a theme of this government year is growth, then that implies that we will continue to grow those parts of the economy which are significant in number and cash terms. Overseas students are one of these significant growth parts of the economy," said Mr Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and Government Advocate for Access to Education.
Pathway to prosperity: making student immigration work for universities and the economy was produced by the Liberal think-tank CentreForum, and launched in Westminster this week at an event attended by many English UK members as well as MPs, university representatives and immigration lawyers.
The report looks in particular at two of the Government's proposals to tighten student visas: the increase in the minimum English language proficiency level to B2 and the minimum level of course studied to just above A Level.
"These proposals will block genuine students from studying which will harm the British economy, the higher education system and Britain's global standing," says the report which is underpinned by data on the last cohort of students on pre-university pathway courses with five leading providers.
Based on this data, the authors estimate that the pathway providers would lose most of their business as 70 per cent of students currently enter at B1 to study courses at a level equivalent to B2. Universities would lose thousands of students, as more than 20,000 each year progress from pathway colleges. This would mean a loss of £600m annually to British universities. The report says almost £2bn goes into the economy each year from university fees and general spending from international students on pathway courses.
"We believe that international students should not be categorised as migrants…. [but] as temporary visitors," says the report.
It recommends other changes to strengthen the Tier 4 system which would not deter genuine students, including an improvement of the HTS system with a single accrediting body, increasing border controls and tracking, with more collaboration between the UKBA and educational institutions, and requesting a deposit or upfront fee payment from students.
Chris Nicholson, co-author of the report and chief executive of Centre Forum, said it was natural that the government should look at student visas as there had been abuse in the past few years. However, there had been a considerable tightening of controls and he thought it early to start making other changes.
The report had looked at the Government's case that raising the language level to B2 would mean the students who came to the UK were more motivated to complete their courses. The authors had access to data from five of the leading pathway groups, and had found almost no difference between progression rates to university between students with English at B1, where 82 per cent had continued their studies, and B2, where 84 per cent had done so.
If the Government pushed through its measures on B2 and NQF3 courses, he estimated that around £600m a year would be lost in university fees and an overall £2bn a year in general contributions to the UK economy. "In total that would lead to a loss of up to 24,000 jobs, 12,000 of those in education," he said.
He added: "In some ways it is even more important than that... as there is evidence that this is a market and a business which is growing very substantially." McKinsey had estimated a growth rate of seven per cent a year, he said. The report suggests that if growth continued as suggested by McKinsey, the university sector would generate a higher value of service exports by 2030 than the £7.5bn currently generated by the entire computer services sector.
CentreForum thought there was potential for a further tightening of the HTS system and also to improve both border control and co-ordination between educational institutions and the UKBA. And, said Mr Nicholson, there was a real issue whether students should be included in the migration statistics at all.
Professor Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, said he thought backbenchers were becoming better and better informed "and I have yet to find one backbencher who is sympathetic to what the Home Office is proposing."
It would be "close to lunacy" if the proposals were adopted, he said. Professor Acton said that he found it worrying that the UKBA had taken it upon itself to be an arbiter of language levels, and said that British universities would be damaged throughout the world if the Home Office "continued to radiate unwelcome messages."
Not only were universities key economic players both nationally and regionally, but it helped UK students in the global economy to have studied with others from all over the world, he said.
"It does seem to me extraordinary to have a government... where the economic interest, political interest, and patriotic duty coincide and they are looking the other way," he said.
Simon Hughes, who said he dealt with many immigration and international student cases as MP for an inner-city London constituency, said there were real issues why the Government wanted the regime to be tougher, and he said that he had absolutely no doubt that rogue institutions were still operating. Systems for inspection had been "inadequate" he said, adding in answer to a question that he thought UKBA inspections should routinely be unannounced.
Moreover, the country did not have very good systems for ensuring that students went home at the end of their courses.
However, universities and satellite institutions were very effective economic regenerators and could also provide cultural exchange in areas outside major cities.
Concluding his remarks, Mr Hughes said that it is "clear that we ought to regard students as separate from the permanent workforce," adding that it was equally clear that it was necessary to have a tough regime that ensured students returned home at the end of their courses and ensured a successful future for a growing sector, and that this would flow from the current debate.
English UK member Graham Simpson of the Oxford English Centre asked Mr Hughes if the Government realised that increasing the required language level to B2 would particularly hit nationals of countries like Korea and Japan, or that the role of schools like his own was to provide the pipeline into the pathway courses which were being discussed.
"I will reinforce that with the senior member of the Government I am meeting later this evening," replied Mr Hughes.
by Susan Young (firstname.lastname@example.org)