Absolutely. I do not intend to go into the detail of the issues with the EU and students, but obviously the Erasmus programme is enormously attractive. Notwithstanding the Government’s good intentions to perpetuate it, there is still a huge degree of uncertainty. Any future strategy must involve perpetuating that programme.
In 2013, the tier 1 post-study work visa was abolished and stringent requirements were placed on international graduates who wanted to work in the UK following their studies. As a result, the number of students remaining to work following their studies fell by 87% between 2011 and 2016, from nearly 47,000 to just over 6,000. When the BIS Committee visited China in 2012, that was a big issue raised by our Chinese hosts. Similarly, in India it is a highly contentious issue, which I know has been raised by the host Government with our Government and business deputations ever since. The perception is that Britain no longer welcomes foreign students. However often the Government repeat the mantra that we are open for business, while we have a restrictive visa regime, and reported difficulties in obtaining visas, potential applicants will be deterred and our ability to compete with rival countries will be inhibited.
It is understandable that the brightest and best from other countries will want to come here not only for their education, but to use and contribute to our top class research, either in the private sector or the field of academia. From the UK’s perspective, it is ridiculous to invest money in developing talent only to then export it to other countries to use in their private sectors, sometimes in competition with companies in this country.
The fact is that far more generous post-study work offers are available in our competitor countries. That is why we are lagging. My disappointment with the strategy is that it does not identify the core problem, which explains what I consider to be our second rate performance, or provide evidence that the Home Office is willing to change it. The best the strategy offers are the so-called actions 3 and 4. Action 3 is:
“Government will strengthen the UK's visa offer for international higher education students”.
Action 4 is:
“The UK Government will keep the visa application process for international students under review”.
Those are warm words, but they are not strong or specific enough to motivate the brightest and best foreign students to choose the UK as opposed to other countries with a more generous and specific offer.
Why has this come about? The reason is the Government’s flawed and failed target to reduce net migration to below 100,000. The compilation of statistics of student movements within the net migration figures is worthy of a debate in itself. I do not have time to go into it in depth, but I will make two observations. First, there is considerable polling evidence that the public are far more supportive of the right of students to study and to work for at least two years thereafter than they are tolerant of other forms of immigration. About 75% of people support that approach.
Secondly, the statistical basis of compiling student immigration statistics using the international passenger survey, which was the basis used to introduce the visa policy, was seriously flawed. It overstated the number of students overstaying—the proportion is now considered to be less than 3%. In short, we have a student visa regime that is based on flawed statistics, that runs contrary to public opinion, and that undermines both our ability to recruit the maximum number of students and the economic benefits of our amazing institutions. That is one reason I will support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who I am glad is present, to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.
In chapter 1.7 of the strategy, titled “A whole-of-government approach”, different Departments are listed as supporting the strategy, including the Foreign Office, the Department for Education, the Department for International Trade, the Department for International Development, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The conspicuous absentee is the Home Office. Perhaps the Minister can explain why the Home Office is missing from the whole-of-Government approach, when its particular responsibilities are central to the policy’s success.
It is vital that the Home Office is signed up to both the policy and the processes if we are to meet, and hopefully exceed, our targets. The policy will be successful only if we have a visa regime that is competitive with rival providers. I ask the Minister what work the Department is doing with the Home Office to ensure that the visa offer, and the associated costs and processes, are at least as attractive—preferably more attractive—than other national providers?
I would like to discuss many other issues, but I will leave time for other Members to contribute. Unless the Minister can provide an adequate answer on the core issue, I suspect that in five years’ time our successors will debate it again, and we will be further behind in the vital race to secure the potential economic benefits from this market.