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House of Lords

Monday, 17 October 2005.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter

Michael Laurence, Lord Bishop of Exeter—Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Chester and the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

International Students: Visa Charges

2.40 pm

Lord Hannay of Chiswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, we are working closely with the education sector through the Joint Education Task Force on the whole range of visa issues, including fee levels. It is not currently possible to disaggregate any effect of the fee increase from other numerous and complex factors that influence an overseas student's decision on where to study.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that not very satisfactory reply and declare an interest as pro-chancellor of the University of Birmingham. Does he recognise that it is unsatisfactory because no impact assessment was carried out before the visa increases were introduced and now he is saying that he cannot carry out an impact assessment afterwards? Is he aware that there has already been a drop of 21 per cent in student applications from China, of 15.4 per cent from Singapore and of 8.7 per cent from Hong Kong at a time when the US is reporting an increase of 15 per cent in visa approvals and France and Australia are also moving in that direction? Does he accept that there is a fundamental contradiction between the two policies the Government are pursuing, one of which is to increase the number of overseas students in our universities and the other of which is to claw back money when the visa costs go up?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, when this issue was last raised in your Lordships' House, I replied—and I believe other Ministers on other occasions have replied—that we are under a legal compulsion to recover the cost of the fees. An impact study was done on the cost of those fees—it was laid in the Library of the House—in order to demonstrate why the costs had
 
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gone up to the extent that they had. There are many factors, including the overall value of sterling compared with other currencies, the costs of living in this country and so on, all of which contribute. There is as important need to study the impact of all these factors. I have argued fiercely that we should do so.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Joint Education Task Force and as chairman of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers. Does my noble friend agree that whatever changes are set out ultimately in relation to visas, the most important thing to get right is that educational institutions co-operate fully with the Home Office in making sure that education is not abused as a means of getting legal entry into the United Kingdom? Will he comment on the example of Australia given by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and whether there is any predisposition to look at the Australian system of online visa applications, which seems to be working so successfully there?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, one of the reasons why costs have increased is because the system's load of verifying whether an application is legitimate has itself gone up. In various studies of applications from different countries, the disturbing fact was found that a very significant proportion—in some cases it exceeded 60 per cent—of the documents provided alongside an application were forged. If we are to take seriously the issue of whether people get through our borders without our trying to do something about it in those circumstances, I afraid that there is a very real cost.

The Australians have moved backwards and forwards in policy terms, but we will certainly look at what they do. Overall, we are seeing an increasing market in the movement of students around the world. The proportion of the market coming here may be decreasing, but until very recently the numbers had been rising sharply.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords—

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Rooker): My Lords, perhaps we may hear from the Conservative Benches.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, granted that there has been a significant drop in the number of applications flowing from China, that China produces more students for this country than any other in the world—which is of enormous value academically, economically and politically—and, as the Minister conceded in his previous answer, that the visa regime is designed by no means primarily to deal with student inflow, but rather to safeguard homeland security, is it not wholly unreasonable to go on piling almost the entire cost of visas on student applicants rather than on the taxpayers of this country?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the costs of the increases, which are related to security, have been applied to all
 
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categories of visa. When the visa fees issue arose in your Lordships' House, there were equal numbers of complaints about visa fees affecting the business community, those visiting their family, and many others—the complaints were distributed evenly.

Although there has been a reduction in the number of Chinese nationals applying for visas, that drop has been seen in other countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, whose authorities have reported a downturn in the number of student applications received by Chinese nationals.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to a recent survey conducted by the London School of Economics, nearly 60 per cent of students accepted for PhD programmes were granted visas of two years or less, thus requiring them to spend more money renewing them before they had a chance to complete their course? Can he confirm that the Government now estimate that it costs three times as much to process student visa applications as it does to process the new proposed identity card, according to the figures that we have just been given?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I have reflected on the fact that the impact study showed that the charge for visas for students was the amount needed to be recovered, no more and no less. I see no benefit in trying to judge whether that is good value in relation to identity cards or anything else. The processes are likely to be different. There have been a number of studies about whether students, including PhD students, are willing to come here. In my view it does not make sense to grant a visa for fewer than three years to any student coming to study for a PhD.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, may I turn to the Government's plans to abolish the right of appeal for visa applicants? Since it is recognised that decision-making is uncertain and in many cases rather bad, should not the Government at least wait until improvements have been introduced and tested?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, UKvisas acknowledges that there need to be improvements in entry clearance decisions. Enhancing training on decision-making by the ECOs and expanding ECM induction training are in hand. There is a role for education institutions in improving the quality of applications and using electronic methods for doing so, which makes a good deal of sense. That will finally be overtaken by the points system, which will deal with the issues comprehensively. We probably have the right measures in place until that process is fully implemented as the alternative.

Lord Bilston: My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the negative impact mentioned with regard to universities is also very real in the further education sector? In 2002–03, 75,000 overseas students arrived here to take education courses, bringing in £58 million. Since then, in the current year, there has
 
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been a 10 per cent to 20 per cent reduction in the number of students, which is obviously having a profound effect on the operation of many further education colleges.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I would expect that the implications would spread to further education, not only to higher education. However, I ask your Lordships to consider the basic fact that if this increase had not taken place, students would be asked to pay an average for a course that would still be 99.94 per cent of what they are being asked for now. It is hard to imagine that that is the decisive factor; rather, it is the overall cost of studying in this country.


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