Sharon spoke during a Backbench Business Committee debate on student visas in the House of Commons.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) on opening this important debate, and I congratulate him and others on securing it.
The wording of the motion says it all. Five parliamentary Committees—the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons, as well as the Science and Technology Committee and the EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education in the other place—have all arrived at the same conclusion and the same recommendation. They are united in their belief—it is a considered belief, based on the vast amount of evidence they have taken—that including students in net migration numbers is the wrong thing to do, for a number of reasons, and that the Government should reverse that decision. The reason for that belief is obvious. The students we are talking about are not migrant workers. They have paid to come to the UK to study. They have chosen to invest in the UK and are sponsored to remain only for the period of their studies.
I speak as an MP for a constituency that benefits from the positive contribution that overseas students can make to university life and the wider community. According to the University of Sunderland’s annual review, more than 2,600 overseas students were enrolled in taught undergraduate or postgraduate courses last year. What does that mean for the university and the wider city? Those students are paying their fees, which are crucial to the university as a means of investing in the facilities and opportunities they can provide to all students, particularly as grants are repeatedly cut, but there are wider benefits too. Those students need places to live and therefore pay rent to local private landlords, usually through local letting agents. Those students need to eat and therefore spend money in local shops and restaurants. They probably need coats and gloves—they have probably also needed wellies over the last couple of years—to deal with the harsh north-east weather, and they will obviously buy those in local shops. Those students will also want to have a good time, as do students the world over, spending money in local cinemas, bars and clubs, and going to gigs, football matches and so on. They might even need books and stationery, which they will buy from local bookshops and stationers.
According to evidence that the university submitted to the Home Affairs Committee when it considered this issue in 2011, overseas students bring an income to the university of £15 million in tuition fees and £1.5 million in accommodation fees. The university estimated the additional income to the city to be around £10 million a year. That figure is probably a conservative estimate, given that it amounts to only £385 a month or so for each student, and we know that many international students who come to the UK are from pretty wealthy families—after all, how else would they afford the large up-front fees that they have to pay? That is probably reflected in the revised estimate that I recently received from the university, of £37 million of total benefit.
When international students come to the University of Sunderland, they do not just bring their wallets; they bring a wealth of culture, which adds to the diversity of the university’s campus. That can be seen in the development of the various student societies—they include the Hong Kong and Malaysian society, the Nigerian society, and the middle east and north Africa group, to name but a few—but it is a two-way street. The university encourages international students to experience the culture that the north-east has to offer, such as Washington old hall in my constituency, which has an obvious attraction for students from the United States, and the various other cultural and historical activities that the city of Sunderland and the whole region have to offer.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend is making an important point about students in the north-east adding to diversity—a diversity that would not necessarily exist without them. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of new entrants—particularly new international student entrants—is reducing. Does she agree that the Government are being a bit complacent and are not factoring in the positive contributions that students make to areas such as ours?
Mrs Hodgson: That is exactly the nub of the matter. We have to factor in those extra elements, including the contribution that such students make to the local economy, as well as—I will come to this point—the long-term benefits from those relationships and links in the years to come.
Another great project at Sunderland university is the international buddying programme, in which students at the university pair up with international students to provide them with advice on what they can experience in the region. The programme enriches the experiences not only of the international students but of their buddies from this country. When the students are visiting regional tourist attractions such as Washington old hall or Durham cathedral, they inevitably spend money in the local and regional economy.
I understand that some programmes run by the student union have involved international students volunteering with local community organisations such as Age UK. This all contributes to giving students a great experience while they are over here, which means that they will develop an affinity with the UK, and with the city and region in which they stay. We have to remember that many of these students come from well-connected families, and that among them will be the political leaders and captains of industry of tomorrow. It is therefore crucial to our long-term diplomatic and economic relationships with their home countries that we warmly welcome these young people, rather than making them feel unwanted, as this Government are undoubtedly doing at the moment.
That is particularly important in the north-east, where international links and trade and exports are fundamental parts of the economy. The independent “North-east Economic Review” recently commissioned by the local enterprise partnership and authored by my noble colleague Lord Adonis reported that the north-east is one of the leading exporting areas of the UK, with over 1,500 companies exporting goods. In 2011 and 2012, it was the only region in England to achieve a positive balance of trade in goods, with figures of £2.5 billion in 2011 and £4.8 billion in 2012. So we do well, but we are reliant in many ways on orders and investment from overseas companies. The role that our universities play in keeping and creating those relationships is crucial.
One country that often comes up when we talk about the need to get more people over to the UK is China. The University of Sunderland works hard to attract Chinese students, as do other higher education institutions. I was lucky enough to visit China in September 2011. I visited the offices of the University of Sunderland in Beijing, where I was able to talk to the local staff there about the work they do. Their biggest concerns by far were the new visa requirements, coupled with the way in which some Chinese students they had recruited were treated at customs when they arrived here in the UK.
Both those factors are a source of humiliation to students. What will happen when word gets out that the UK does not want them and that it will put them through that kind of experience? Students who would have come to the UK, and who might well have come to Sunderland, will go elsewhere in the world. They want to learn and develop their English, and they will go to the USA, Australia, New Zealand or Canada, all of which exclude students from their migrant figures and are currently welcoming them with open arms. Those countries are benefiting from our loss.
While I was in China I also visited Suzhou, where the University of Liverpool has established a joint campus with a local university, with the aim of providing opportunities for UK students to visit an economically and culturally significant area of China as well as providing a form of embassy or advert for its UK institution. I met a young man from Suzhou who had been studying computer science at Liverpool and is now doing his postgraduate qualification at University College London. That shows that the process definitely works. The development of more such partnerships and recruitment drives in a country with which we desperately need to build links is surely at risk, given the way in which this Government’s attitude towards overseas students is now seen in that country, and undoubtedly in others.
The University of Sunderland posed two questions to me, which I believe cut to the heart of this debate. I would be grateful if the Minister could address them in his response—if indeed he is listening to what I am saying. First, can the Government meet their net migration targets without reducing the number of international students coming to study at British universities? My suspicion is that they probably cannot, and are therefore knowingly and willingly accepting the devastating economic impact that this policy will have on localities and regions, particularly those with a track record of success in global enterprise.
Secondly, what is more important to this Government: economic growth and sustainability or a falsely painted picture of immigration and immigrants that includes those who choose to come and invest in the UK and bring substantial short and long-term economic and social advantage to our country? I am sure the Minister will say that it is the former, but actions speak louder than words, and the actions of this Government firmly suggest that their priority is political headlines, rather than what is right for our higher education sector and for the country.
Of course we must tackle bogus colleges and bogus students. Everyone agrees on that. I am afraid, however, that such action is being used as a smokescreen to justify this damaging and short-sighted policy. Well, the Government are fooling nobody. We all know that this is about using overseas students to reduce the net migration figures in order to fulfil a promise made by the Prime Minister that he would otherwise be unable to fulfil. That is a disgrace, and it must stop. I hope that this debate will spur a change in policy and a more grown-up and thought-through approach. This Government are well-practised in the art of the U-turn, and I hope that we will see one being performed on this issue sooner rather than later, before too much more damage is done to our universities and our international reputation.