International Education Strategy Debate

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Department: Department for International Trade

International Education Strategy

Joseph Johnson Excerpts
Wednesday 22nd May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for International Trade
Stephen Timms Portrait Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab) - Hansard
22 May 2019, 4:51 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I very much support the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) made. I share his worry about our falling market share with respect to the overseas students we support in the UK. I want to speak about one problem that has particularly hit our performance.

In 2011, the Home Office gave a licence to the American firm ETS to deliver the TOEIC—test of English for international communication—in the UK. Over the following three years, more than 58,000 overseas students took that test to demonstrate that they spoke good enough English to study here. In February 2014, “Panorama” exposed the significant scale of cheating at TOEIC centres that took place with the connivance of their proprietors.

ETS responded by undertaking an analysis of its recordings of all 58,000 tests over the three years. It concluded that 33,725 candidates had definitely cheated and 22,694 had probably cheated, which adds up to virtually all of them. As a result of the allegations, more than 35,000 of the students lost their visas and many were thrown off their courses midway through. Appeals were not permitted in the UK, and the students involved lost all the fees that they had paid.

Five years later, the plight of many is dire. Last night in the Attlee Suite, the film-maker Tim Langford premièred “Inquisition”, a deeply disturbing and compelling short film about the plight of five students who are still in the UK. There is a moving article in The Guardian today about the plight of three students who gave up and left the UK and who are now in a terrible situation in their home countries. Those who are still here are not allowed to study or work. Many of them depend on support from friends. Some had invested their family’s life savings in obtaining a British degree and are now destitute, have no qualifications, and have apparently been found guilty of cheating by the UK authorities.

It is now becoming clear that many—probably most—of those who lost their visas in that way did not cheat. The National Audit Office has recognised the problem and is due to report on the scandal on Friday. I welcome the Home Secretary’s recent announcement that after the report is published he will make an oral statement in the House about proposals to address what happened. However, although the 58,000 students who sat the test were from a great number of countries around the world, the largest numbers came from the Indian subcontinent: 6,000 from Bangladesh, 8,000 from India, 10,000 from Pakistan, 1,000 from Nepal and 1,000 from Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, in the light of how we have treated those students, there has been a very big fall in the number of people who have come from those countries since the TOEIC scandal: 48.5% fewer started their first year of tertiary education here in 2017-18 than in 2010-11.

One very disappointing aspect of what happened is that students who were thrown off their courses and plunged into crisis received very little support from their universities. At the film première last night, a UK university immigration adviser said that the university that he worked for at the time had forbidden him to assist the students affected. It will take a lot of work to repair the damage that the scandal has caused to the reputation of UK higher education.

Where students are able to regain their visas, perhaps following a statement from the Home Secretary in the next couple of weeks, does the Minister agree that their former universities need to help them? In particular, does he agree that it would be wholly unacceptable for the universities to require those students to start their courses and pay their fees all over again?

Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con) Hansard
22 May 2019, 4:56 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), the former Chair of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, on giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue.

As hon. Members have said, our world-class universities have been a great asset for our country for generations. They have attracted young, bright people from all over the world, giving them an opportunity to receive a first-class higher education and giving us an opportunity to inculcate an understanding of our culture and worldview. That has ensured that we do not recede as a cultural reference point, which is more important than ever now that we are doing Brexit.

It is a huge asset for us that more world leaders have been educated in the UK than in any other country but the US. Frankly, I am concerned that the next generation of world leaders—the next Bill Clintons, the next Benazir Bhuttos—may not choose to study in the UK. All of us in Parliament have a duty to ensure that they put the UK at the very top of the list of countries around the world where they want to study.

Frankly, one would think that a Government committed to global Britain and to extolling the projection of our values around the world would do more to cultivate the important opportunity that international students offer us. As hon. Members have made clear, however, part of the problem is that since 2010 we have included students in our net migration target, so we are doing precisely the opposite: through a welter of restrictive Home Office policies, we are deterring people from choosing the UK over other countries. That explains our substantial underperformance in comparison with core competitors around the world.

Of course market share is not the be-all and end-all of any activity, but it is an important indicator of competitiveness and we are losing it very rapidly: our market share has fallen from approximately 12% in 2010 to just 8% in 2016. We must look seriously at why that significant rate of decline is happening. As hon. Members have said, we are seeing some growth in absolute terms, but there has been a dramatic fall in the proportion of students from some of the most important countries in the market for international higher education, including India, which the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) rightly mentioned.

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the publication of the international education strategy: it is good that we have an ambitious goal for higher education and other education exports. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) was right to say that exports can come in many forms—not just students coming here, but transnational education, for example.

We should not be phobic about international students coming to study in this country, but I am afraid that is the impression that we have all too often given because of the Home Office’s restrictive approach. That is why I and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) have tabled a new clause to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill that would acknowledge the important contribution of international students in two key ways. First, it would insure universities against the risk that a Government will decide to reduce net migration swiftly by slashing international student numbers. Any future Government who intend to cap numbers will first have to secure parliamentary approval.

Secondly, the new clause will ensure that we take a much smarter approach to post-study work. As hon. Members have already said, it has been severely restricted in recent years on the back of shoddy evidence produced by the Home Office back in 2012-13. Students will invest their time, money and human capital elsewhere if a competitive post-study work regime is not available in a particular country. Our core competitors—the US, Canada and New Zealand—offer international students the chance to work for up to three years after graduation, and Australia offers up to four years. Hacked back to just four months in 2012, our offer is simply not competitive. Although the international education strategy promises to increase that to six months, it is still not enough. Twelve months for some more advanced courses is also not enough.

While we wait for the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill to come back to the House on Report, I urge the Minister to look at the strong support the new clause has from MPs of all parties, and to assure me that the Government will take steps to welcome the clause and implement its recommendations.

Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab) Hansard
22 May 2019, 5:01 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) for securing this extremely important debate and for his excellent opening speech, which reminded us all of the need to champion and support our higher education sector in the UK.

We know that almost 450,000 non-UK-domiciled students study in UK universities, which contributes about £19 billion to our economy—about £95,000 per student—and supports over 200,000 jobs. It is clearly a sector that we need to support. I welcome the Government’s international education strategy and their ambition to increase education exports to £35 billion and grow the number of international students to 600,000 by 2030. I hope we see in the report a change in the mood music coming from the Government, because we need overseas students to know they will be welcomed and supported in the UK.

I acknowledge the widespread support in the sector for the strategy, but there are a number of questions, too. It would be really good to hear the Minister respond to some of the issues that hon. Members have already emphasised. First, the Government need to do something about the visa system. Students find it too complicated, too bureaucratic and too difficult to access in their own countries. As hon. Members said, there is also a huge issue with post-study work visas and how long they last, compared with what our competitors offer. We know that countries such as Australia, Canada and the US have recently seen high growth in international demand for study, while the total number of international students enrolled in the UK has stayed flat. I would say to the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) that this is a hugely important point and we need to address it.

The chief executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, said in October 2018:

“Despite the quality and popularity of our universities as destination for international students, in recent years we’ve seen a declining market share in relation to competitors.”

If the Government are to deliver on their strategy, that clearly needs to stop. We also need to do something to ensure that we have reciprocal arrangements with Europe. The strategy does not say much about European students, and I would like to hear how the Minister intends to ensure that we do not lose students coming from Europe. The reciprocal arrangements are very important, as is identifying new markets.

I was very excited to read the industrial education strategy. There was something on regional priorities and I thought, “Great! The Government are going to look at our regional universities being a priority.” When I read it, I thought, “Oh dear, no.” Our priority is regions of the world. The middle east and Latin America are important for new markets, but we need to protect the markets we have as well as targeting cold spots. We have to recognise the importance of diversity in the sector. Durham University in my constituency brings to the city huge diversity, which would just not be there without it. That is something we need to celebrate and expand.

Hon. Members have talked about the importance of soft power. I have just come back from a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Education Foundation conference. Many leaders across the world were educated in the UK, and we need to ensure that our higher education sector can attract future leaders. We need to do that by recognising the importance of global mobility for our young people as well. We need to support the British Council more effectively and look at how scholars from overseas, including postgraduate students, contribute to our research base and innovation. We need to ensure that we recognise the importance of transnational education.

In my remaining time, I thank the hon. Member for Orpington for tabling his amendment to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill. I totally support it and hope it is approved in due course.