HL Deb 20 July 1978 vol 395 cc605-36

11.21 p.m.

Lord SAINSBURY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Secretary of State for Education and Science is now in a position to announce the Government's future policy towards overseas students, and her views on the proposal submitted to her in September 1977 for the constitution of a commission to deal with the problems created by overseas students. The noble Lord said: My Lords, may I start by expressing my regret that this not unimportant Unstarred Question is being taken so late in the evening and to thank the noble Lords and the noble Baroness who have stayed to take part in the discussion. Several Ministries and Government Departments are concerned, if only to a limited degree, with overseas students. These include the Department of Education and Science, the Ministry of Overseas Development, the Department of Employment, the Home Office and, not least, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Overseas students' problems in Britain are not merely a domestic issue but have an international dimension. Although periodic consultation exists between the various Departments, from the point of view of many people concerned with the welfare of overseas students, it is inadequate. From a Departmental point of view, overseas students' problems are a minor part of larger problems which are the responsibility of those Departments and the effect on overseas students of Departmental decisions therefore tends to get overlooked. Therefore, the proposal was made by the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Students' Affairs and the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, in close consultation with the British Council, for an establishment of a commission. This would help to ensure a co-ordinated and inter-Departmental approach to all aspects of overseas students' affairs.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, who is chairman of UCOSA will no doubt develop the thoughts behind the idea and the composition of the proposed commission. Briefly, it is suggested that the commission should be presided over by an eminent academic figure, with representation from all organisations whose main concern is with student affairs and from relevant educational and student bodies; but, as anyone with experience knows, if positive recommendations are to result from their deliberations, membership of the commission should not be too large. Most important, the commission would need to have access to the relevant Government Departments. According to British Council published statistics, there were nearly 125,000 overseas students, including nurses, in Britain in the academic year 1976–77, of which 83,000 were in public sector education; namely, universities, polytechnics and colleges. So a lot of young people are involved. Overseas students already have fundamental problems simply because they are living in a foreign country. For example, exchange control may suddenly cut off their money; and in their vacations they, unlike most United Kingdom students, can rarely afford to go home. This means that they have to continue paying rent and buying food.

In addition to these basic, common problems, a significant number of overseas students in Britain have other difficulties. These include lack of advice and help on practical training; the difficulty of finding accommodation at a price that they can afford; the extreme complications of Home Office immigration and Department of Employment regulations; obtaining employment in vacations; meeting increasing fees; and also the difficulty of finding a place of study when entering an educational establishment which is limited by quotas. I am sure other speakers in this mini debate will talk about these last two points, but I will refer to them briefly. Many students are able to come and study in Britain only through the sacrifice of their families who do not enjoy the benefits of a welfare state in times of sickness or unemployment. It is too simple as well as unjust to say that those students who can afford to come to Britain are from rich families. Wealth is in any case relative.

In addition to those students who are privately financed, I understand that several classes of students are affected by the quota system. These include: technical co-operation training fellows selected under schemes financed by the Ministry of Overseas Development; Commonwealth scholars; British Council scholars; students financed by overseas governments; students financed by the United Nations; and those financed by the European Community. In view of his great knowledge of the EEC, my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth will no doubt have something to say about the European Community's aim for free movement of students within the Community.

Moving from the European Community to the Commonwealth, some High Commissions and Governments are very greatly concerned about many of the problems that I have mentioned: fees, quotas and the availability of practical training. This is what I meant by the international dimension to which I referred in my opening remarks. There is a further international difficulty, and this involves students who, because of national emergencies, revolutions or other internal upheavals, such as those that have occured in certain African and South American countries, cannot return home in the immediately foreseeable future. Although a lot is done for these students, there is no standing arrangements and there is always a gap between help being needed and help being provided.

Your Lordships will appreciate that it would take up too much time to cover all types of students. For example, I understand that nurse learners from overseas have their own special problems. I should like to stress, however, that we are talking about young people who are at an impressionable age. It is important for them to adapt to our way of life and benefit from their stay in Britain. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that they themselves make a contribution to British educational and cultural life. The fairness of the treatment they have received during their stay here, and the views they form of Britain, will remain with them for a long time after they return home.

I think, therefore, that it is not just a matter of overseas students having particular problems, for thinking in that way may lead to treating the students themselves as problems. It is more a generalised feeling among students, reinforced by their problems, that they are not really welcome in Britain, and that their feelings of warmth towards us when they first arrive prove not to be reciprocated. They are not asking for special facilities but for the removal of some of the obstacles put in their path which inhibit their progress as serious students. If we had a commission, many of the obstacles could be removed, if we had the will to remove them.

After the completion of their training, many of the well-qualified young people may reach positions of influence in their own countries. They can become useful ambassadors for Britain. For example, those who train as engineers may be important advocates of British plant and machinery, to the benefit of our export trade. But much more than the material value of their stay in Britain is the contribution they can make to international understanding. I await with interest to hear what conclusion Her Majesty's Government have reached about the proposed constitution of a commission, and their future policy towards overseas students.

11.32 p.m.


My Lords, the House is returning to a subject which has occupied your Lordships in a previous Unstarred Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, some 2½ years ago, and in several Parliamentary Questions since then. If I may say so, the Question which the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, is putting this evening is timely, because upon this difficult subject I think a firm statement of Government policy is overdue. The subject is difficult for this reason: no one would deny that the presence of overseas students in this country is of inestimable benefit. The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, and indeed the other speakers tonight can explain far better than I the benefits which result in young people from all parts of the world wanting to come here to study in our universities and colleges. Let us make no mistake about it: those benefits are enhanced and not lost when those young men and women return to their own countries. I think the case is further strengthened when students come from developing countries, both in terms of what they can subsequently contribute to their own people and in the contribution they can help their own countries to make to trade and international understanding.

The difficulty arises in that resources are limited. Unlike the situation in other countries, support for higher education in the United Kingdom derives from a system of pure grants and not from loans. On 8th June in another place, the Minister of State, Mr. Oakes, in a Written Answer, gave the net cost per place in higher or further education occupied by overseas students as £1,284 at 1977 prices. As I am sure your Lordships will know, the cost per place at the moment for undergraduates is £650 and £850 for post-graduate work for overseas students. But the amount of subsidy for degree and other advanced courses is far greater than those figures would indicate, and I hope that perhaps the noble Baroness who is answering for the Government this evening will be able to give us the most up-to-date figures available and will include, so far as can be assessed, the total cost to the taxpayer of support for fulltime overseas students in higher and further education. If the noble Baroness can give that figure, so far as it can be assessed, it will be considerable, but it is money well spent. And, indeed, do not let us forget that it is offset to a considerable, though unquantifiable, extent by foreign currency brought in by those who come to study here.

Nevertheless, to be realistic, if support for overseas students were to be increased in real terms in the present economic climate, savings would have to be made elsewhere. Because the Department of Education and Science is not directly concerned with the welfare aspects of the lives of overseas students when they are living in this country, or with international relations with the countries of origin of those students, and because the Department has many competing claims on its resources, the fact is that support for overseas students, over the years, has tended to diminish and not to increase. What I am trying to say is that I should feel easier in my own mind about decisions taken on the level of support if those decisions were taken by a Government Department, or a group of Departments, which was able to take all the factors into account. The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, so rightly said that there are all these different Government Departments, and it does not seem—and this is the whole point of the second part of his Question—as if there is any cohesive unit for bringing their thoughts together.

Indeed, a simple solution was put forward on the occasion of the Unstarred Question of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, on 21st January 1976, that the Overseas Development Ministry should become the responsible Department, and the Government undertook to look at the case for that. It may be that such a transfer would create as many problems as it would solve, but I raise this point again not because of any lack of confidence in the Department of Education and Science—not at all—but because, as the ODM is responsible for our foreign relations in terms of aid, so that Department could perhaps bring more continuity into this grant system, so far as overseas students are concerned, which might lead in turn to greater clarity of policy. Noble Lords opposite will forgive me if I say that clarity has not exactly been a feature of Ministers' pronouncements on this subject in recent years.

For instance, on the occasion of the Unstarred Question of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, who was then Minister of State, acknowledged that noble Lords who had taken part in that debate were united in their rejection of having any kind of quota system, and without giving any undertaking on that occasion the noble Lord commended the option of having a differential fee to finance the extra resources required for the overseas entry. Yet what happened? The following year a quota was introduced, and the Government require local authorities to restrict overseas numbers this year to the 1975–76 level.

The Secretary of State has declared that her policy is to work towards the abolition of the differential. The right honourable lady said that on more than one occasion in a debate on 25th November 1976 in another place. Yet what has happened? The increase for this year, although it is true that the Government have reduced the differential, was a very steep cash increase indeed, and for next year there is to be a flat rate increase of nearly 9 per cent., which in cash terms will once again increase the differential. Because this year's steep fee increases have undoubtedly caused hardship in some cases, the DES has sent a circular to local authorities informing them that cases of hardship can be helped, and I understand that the cost of fee remissions in that cause can be charged against the advanced further education pool. But what will happen? I understand that this assistance is to relate only to the current year, which is hardly likely to be a provision that instils confidence in the long term consistency of Government policy.

I have said that I recognise that resources are limited and total numbers have considerably increased. My criticism is that universities, colleges and local authorities, not to mention overseas students themselves, really are placed in considerable difficulties if Government policy remains obscure.

If I may add one further example, in the paper published by the Department of Education and Science Higher Education into the 1990s, an assumption is made that overseas student numbers will decline to about 44,000 in 1981–82. I must say—and I genuinely mean it—that that figure came as a total surprise to me. On what, I wonder, is that figure based? Certainly it is below the 10 per cent. recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, and his committee as being the minimum desirable for the good health of our further and higher education systems. Surely that figure cannot be in response to the aspirations of young people from abroad. So I am contending that the main cause of concern which lies behind the Unstarred Question of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, today is that policy is not being made taking all the factors into account, but rather by a series of ad hoc decisions.

The proposal put forward nearly a year ago by UKCOSA and the Council for Education in the Commonwealth for a Standing Commission would certainly bring together practical experience, which would be very valuable in the formation of Government policy. As some eight Government Departments are involved in one way or another with the lives of overseas students when they are living in this country or are entering this country, I should have thought that it was vital that each of those Departments should be represented as full members, if there were to be such a commission. But whether the necessary consultations both between Government Departments and with Departments could be carried out equally effectively without the need to set up yet another Government sponsored organisation I do not know. What is certain is that greater cohesion is needed in policy-making.

One point which emerged clearly from the publication by the Overseas Students' Trust, called Freedom to Study, was that overseas students are unable to be sure about their relations with the different authorities with which they are concerned: that they are bewildered—I think this ties in with what the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said—by the distinction between Government, universities, colleges and local authorities and that when arrangements entered into with universities or colleges are then altered by Government they feel resentment. I do not think that we could have a clearer example of this undesirable process than the fee increases, the consequent diverse hardship arrangements and the really extraordinary device of exempting by circular a Government Department from the law of the land, all of which have occurred during the past year. It is in that context that the Government are giving their reply tonight.

Whatever answer the Minister has to give, I hope that the Government will take away from the debate a realisation of the urgent need for all those involved to believe that decisions are being reached taking all the relevant considerations into account. Only that belief will satisfy those who do so much work for overseas students, and only that belief will enable policy to be made in this admittedly very difficult area with as great a degree of assent as it is possible to attain.

11.44 p.m.


My Lords, first I should like to echo what I take to be the surprise of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, that so far there should have been no reaction of any kind by the Department of Education and Science to the proposals put to the Secretary of State by myself—acting in the name of the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs and the Council for Education in the Commonwealth—as long ago as last September, and I repeat as long ago as last September, for the establishment of some form of commission, as has been said, under an independent chairman of distinction in the academic world which would put forward suggestions for general policy as regards overseas students after consultation with all the interested parties.

These proposals were submitted after consultation with very many of those interested parties—including, I may say, members of the Government, unofficially—and we thought there was reason to suppose that they might at least receive sympathetic consideration. It seemed to us then, and it still seems to us. that ordinary, inter-departmental discussions under the aegis of the Department of Education and Science, whose direct interest in overseas students might be thought by some to be less than their concern for the views of local education authorities, is an unsatisfactory way of arriving at a general policy on what admittedly, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has said, is a difficult and important problem, directly concerning, as the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, has said, many Departments. Perhaps I might add the British Council to the list he gave. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, that there is a case for letting the initiative lie, for obvious reasons, rather with the ODM than with the Department of Education and Science. There is certainly a case for that which should be seriously looked into.

But to get back to the proposal for a commission, it really is not as though we were suggesting anything revolutionary or unconstitutional. The suggestions of the proposed commission would eventually have to be considered by some Cabinet sub-committee, and it is there where the actual decisions on policy would be taken. There is no difference of view about that. Anyhow, despite the fact that we have been assured almost every month since the beginning of the year that a reply from the Secretary of State to my letter of last September would shortly be forthcoming, nothing has so far happened. We are now approaching the end of the Session, after which any reply could not form the basis of any Parliamentary comment, whether in this House or in another place. So, if they so desired, the Government could thus effectively blanket our initiative, at least until next October, when incidentally it is quite possible that there may be a change of Government, in which case the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs and the Council for Education in the Commonwealth would have to start again from scratch in a fresh attempt to have favourable consideration given to their views. That is really a very depressing thought.

So, hoping against hope, we trust that even this evening, just a few days before the end of the Session, the noble Baroness who is to reply to this Question will nevertheless he able to give us some indication of the Government's reaction to the proposal for a commission, which I believe would be supported in principle by nearly all those who have the welfare of overseas students at heart.

There are some other important outstanding points on which we feel entitled to ask the Government for their views before we break up for the Recess. One is the intelligent and well-documented consultative paper entitled Admission to Institutes of Higher Education of Students from other Member States, on which the Brussels Commission asked the Government to comment as long ago as last February. After all, that is some time ago. I believe that the noble Lord. Lord Thomson of Monifieth, will dwell on that document in his own intervention. So I shall not do more than observe that Her Majesty's Government must soon take into consideration the proposals there made, if they are ever to formulate any coherent policy as regards the whole problem of overseas students. It is a very important document which the Commission produced, and it arose out of a meeting some little while ago of all the Ministers of Education of the Commonwealth countries.

There is also a paper submitted some two months ago by UKCOSA directly to the Department of Education and Science, entitled Fees for the 'Eighties. In that paper UKCOSA, while expressing a preference for the phasing out of fees for the majority of overseas students, suggested that if that document was not acceptable—and no doubt it would not be—that if such fees are to be maintained, the following rules should be applied: One, full fee awards for private overseas students unable to meet the cost of tuition fees, but able to maintain themselves, who come from developing parts of the world; students to be nominated by the receiving institutions. Two, full scholarships under technical co-operation programmes and complete funding for refugee students. Three, reciprocal fee arrangements for students from countries within the European Economic Community, on which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Thomson will elaborate. Four, full cost courses by special arrangement. Five, identical fees covering the same proportion of average unit costs as at present (that is, approximately 20 per cent.) should be charged to British and overseas students.

In this approach UKCOSA naturally recognises that the injection of new money would be essential; we recognise that. They also appreciate that the Government could not be expected to accept an open-ended commitment in terms of total numbers of overseas students; we admit that, too. Nevertheless, they would hope and expect that a national planning would he conducted flexibly by encouraging institutions to make the necessary adjustments when the local proportion of overseas students to home students is particularly high or particularly low.

UKCOSA looks forward to an early indication of Government policy, and, above all perhaps, to an opportunity to discuss these complex issues in further detail before decisions are taken. Surely this is a reasonable request. So far, however, apart from an expression of Departmental interest, which was in itself welcome, there has been no response from the Department of Education and Science, and the holiday is almost upon us. For all these reasons we are eagerly looking forward to the speech of the noble Baroness who is to wind up this short debate. I can hardly believe that after all the assurances that we have had her observations will be entirely negative.

Increasingly, critics of our system of government—I do not say that I necessarily share this view—are saying that the system tends to be dominated by what one might call an unapproachable bureaucracy over which Ministers, I fear, often exercise only a nominal control. It may be that these officials really believe that the present arrangements for coping with overseas students are incapable of improvement. Perhaps they do. If they believe that, they can believe anything. I repeat, I can only hope that that loyal supporter of the Government, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, Will have more success than I have had in inducing them at least to discuss the possibility of reform, particularly in the light of the views of all those noble Lords who are left to speak at this late hour and feel, as I am sure they do, that the present system of dealing with overseas students is both deplorable and self-defeating.

11.53 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with almost every word that has been said so far, and I think we should be particularly grateful for the sympathetic speech from the Conservative Front Bench. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, making an equally forceful speech when I made my maiden speech on a similar Motion about two years ago, when I was a student myself. I agree with so much of what has been said that rather than he a feeble echo I will in a moment confine myself to two particular points. namely, fees and quotas.

My main impression on the subject of overseas students is still partly the same as it was two years ago, of the very fragmented and unco-ordinated approach which is applied to this problem by the Government. I certainly support the call for a commission which can take a more rounded and long-term view of the matter. So often decisions on overseas students appear to be taken by default as the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle to be fitted in with little choice as to its shape. A much greater amount of certainty and stability is required in the affairs of overseas students. In a world where he who makes the most noise or trouble seems to have the best chance of being listened to, it must be remembered that overseas students themselves have little direct political power or influence, either in the ballot box or in other ways. Thus I think it more than fair that the Government should be prepared to accept the limited but formalised power of the suggested commission.

I should now like to comment briefly on two aspects, fees and quotas. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, who is to reply, can give us the Government's latest views on these, and particularly, as far as I am concerned, the longer-term view. As regards fees, two years ago it seemed that the Government might be opening up a huge differential between the fees of home and of overseas students. Now that the differential is more modest and the latest proposed increases for both are only keeping up with inflation, I personally feel that concentrating energy on persuading the Government to produce a parity in fees is misplaced. I think that it is an easily identifiable and perhaps almost symbolic difference between the two sets of fees, and thus it is a ready target for campaign in an area where there are more intangibles and, I maintain, more serious problems. This would seem to me to be similar to mounting a campaign in the Health Service to abolish prescription charges. With enough effort such a campaign might succeed, but at the end of the day, as I am claiming as regards students fees, for me all the more important and difficult problems would still be unsolved.

Although I am in favour of parity for home and overseas student fees, I do not think that it is a principle worth using a lot of energy fighting for, especially as for most of the home students what appears to be a certain level of fee is simply a book entry recording the movement of the Government's hand from one of their pockets to another.

As regards quotas, in the debate two years ago I think that I was the only speaker who suggested quotas as an alternative to very high fees. I certainly do not support the Government's attempt at regressive quotas or the fining and cutbacks by some local authorities. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies, can tell us what the Government have learned from their recent attempts at recommending quota levels of overseas students to universities. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors said that the recommended quotas should be ignored and that the existing non-discriminatory selection practice should be maintained. If the Government choose to pursue quotas, could they not use a more gentle approach and try to obtain voluntary co-operation from the universities, while having a plan flexible enough to make sense to individual institutions as well as being fair nationally? "Quota" is such an emotive term, almost like "means test", that if something like it is to be instituted an extremely sensitive and fair approach would seem to be needed right down the line, from the UGC, the Vice-Chancellors and staff to student level. I hope that quotas will not be needed, but if a method of limitation has to be available it seems to me that a sensitive quota system is preferable to financial discrimination.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about the longer term as I am someone who might have to live in that future. I heard again the other day that phrase about Britain losing an empire but not yet finding a role. Part of that role now must surely be a contribution to the world, and particularly the developing world, through our transmission of knowledge and skills and, in part, our culture and educational experience. It is to our benefit, and the benefit of those we seek to help, that this Government and the next should not be afraid to make generous provision for overseas students.

I am not saying that any foreigners educated here will automatically be our friends and let us not flatter ourselves too much—part of our attraction is our language, our lingua franca—but the influence for good that we can generate through education is incalculable. I hope that the commission recommended in this Motion will be able to serve as a continual reminder to any short-sighted politicians. I hope that the Government will accept some form of commission.

12 Midnight


My Lords, I think that the House must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, for raising this Question. I hope it will not be thought that the brevity of my speech is commensurate with my interest. As it is so late and as, after a very busy day, so many noble Lords have stayed here, I propose to take no longer than five minutes because so much data and detail have been given in facts and figures.

However, I should like to point out that the Question is: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Secretary of State for Education and Science is now in a position to announce the Government's future policy The second part of the Question asks for: her views on the proposal submitted to her in September 1977 for the constitution of a commission". These points were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, to whom we are all grateful for the work that he has done with the student organisation, with which we all know that he has been connected for a long time. I should also like to say here that outside of the university and polytechnic students, nurses, too, are of paramount importance. Many of us, including myself, are grateful for the attention that we have received from trainee and fully-qualified nurses of all colours who have come from all parts of the Commonwealth to serve this nation. Secondly, for heaven's sake do not let our students from the Commonwealth—and I do not want to upset the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, who may think a little differently from me on the Common Market—be treated any differently from those from the Common Market.

I do not want people and parents of today to forget that when we had to fight the spirit of Nazism it was the Commonwealth fathers of these students, and in some cases their grandfathers, who came to us in two World Wars to protect what we considered was the miracle of the British democracy which had been built up over many thousands of years. It may be thought sentimental, but the fact is that had we not had that manpower, of whatever race and from whatever part of the Empire, as we used to call it in the bad old days, or the Commonwealth as we call it today, England would not be in the position it is today and neither would Europe. In its way their contribution was as much a contribution as the Battle of Stalingrad—it was needed in Burma and other places.

Secondly, it is penny-wise and pound foolish to forget that these people being educated here in the polytechnics and universities, or, in our ceramic polytechnics in the pottery or mining areas, return as ambassadors for this country. I have met them all over the world. I shall reiterate my meeting some years ago, when travelling by train from Peking to Hanoi, with a Chinese engineer who was 77 years of age, who spoke good English—and we are all Chinese Marxists now—and who was drawn in by Mao to help build the new bridge over the YangtseKiang River at Wuhan. I asked him where he was going and what trade he was in; he replied that he was an engineer. I asked him when he qualified and he said, "In 1910, at the Imperial College of Science, London, with the best British engineers in the world".

In Rangoon I met some of the head Government officials of the Burmese and two of them spoke with a Welsh intonation as heavy as mine, and I was brought up to speak Welsh. I asked them where they were trained and they said at Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities. But they were ambassadors for the British way of life. What is the matter with our Government? What has gone wrong, not just with one Government but with Governments of many political Parties, that they are neglecting the value of training these people?

Do not get worried; I am looking at the clock and I have been speaking for four minutes. The international argument has been given by UNESCO: … in the interchange between advanced countries (principally the U.K., France, West Germany, Canada and the U.S.) the U.K. annually takes about 11,000 students and sends abroad about 12,500, mostly to North America"— that way we get a quid pro quowhere students are more heavily subsidised, often receiving also maintenance scholarships, which we very rarely offer. The U.K. takes about as many students from poorer countries as do France and Germany. But we are the only Western European country (apart from Eire) which discriminates against overseas students and we have by far the highest fees". This must stop and we must remember our heritage and the contribution that these people make.

The five minutes is up and I have finished. But when the noble Baroness gets up I hope she will have something nice to say because, like Cordelia: Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in women.".

12.5 a.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I am honoured to be placed between a Welshman and a Scotsman in this debate. I should like to thank the noble Lord for putting this Question on the Order Paper, and also to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies, for doing this extra work. Would she convey to her noble friend Lady Stedman our regrets that she is not well enough to be here tonight, and our hopes that she makes a quick recovery?

I want to concentrate on the importance of the learning of English. It has been stated by the noble Viscount—who we are pleased to hear again—that English is the lingua franca of the world. English is of essential importance to the world, to create an understanding between the many peoples of different nations. This common language is doing a great deal to help better understanding and to keep the peace of the world. Now that China and Indonesia have taken English as their second language we shall have all the major nations speaking this language in the future. This is very important indeed.

The knowledge of English has been spread not only by us but by other countries. I have attended three major Commonwealth Conferences: one in Jamaica, one in Malaysia and one in Nigeria. What made them so different from all the other international conferences I have attended was the fact that no interpreters at all were needed, and between sessions we could all talk happily and easily together. Many of those attending had had their higher education in this country and, furthermore, we had similar backgrounds in regard to the educational processes. English is also one of the five languages recognised as the official languages at the United Nations, the others being Russian, Spanish, French, and Chinese. It is also one of the two official languages of the Council of Europe.

Furthermore, other countries are going for self-help. I have been to Singapore on more than one occasion, and there they have a splendid Regional English Language Centre. I have visited this twice. It is a South East Asia Ministers of Education organisation. The members are, it is interesting to note, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. They also have associate members in Australia, New Zealand and France, who have been associate members since 1973. This idea was conceived in 1966 and came to fruition only two years later in 1968. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be pleased that they have a woman director, who is very efficient indeed.

The object of this centre is the training of teachers to teach English, and to instruct them in the application of the theory to the practical problems of English language teaching and learning. What is very interesting in their brochure are the words, to develop a spirit of regional co-operation in educational matters". Here they try to do it through a common language, which again is English. The standard of the tutors was very high, though they came not only from this country but also from the various countries in which they were teaching students.

Surely it is up to us, even in our economic difficulties, to take a good share in the training and teaching of young people in the future. It is not just those who go to university, because there are nearly 11,000 in this country at the present time who are studying for their GCEs and CSEs. The Race Relations Act 1976 stated that the establishment of separate quotas for overseas students was illegal. But, as the noble Baroness may remember, unfortunately the Secretary of State for Education and Science has invoked Section 41 of the Act to enable the numbers of overseas students to be reduced under arrangements approved by her. I was a little surprised she did that, because, after all, she taught in Nigeria and must have seen how good it was to have that exchange of students. I sent a number of students when I was doing social work in Malaysia and I had an opportunity to see them on their return and observe the benefits they had received.

As I understand it, if we go on at our present pace, we shall be reducing the level from 83,000 to 68,000 in the years 1979 and 1980. In a document I read about the National Union of Students in 1977, it was said that it would cost an extra £25 million for overseas students not covered by scholarships. I read in The Times this morning that we will be spending £30 million on gipsies; local authorities will be spending that money on providing sites for them. While I am not in the least against doing what we can for gipsies (I attended an international gipsy conference and while it was most entertaining, I could not understand everything because the interpreters were not very good, and there were real Romanies there), I am not altogether certain the gipsies want to be moved about and put on special sites. However, if we can spend that amount of money, we might put it to better use at the present time. I understand there is plenty of room in the universities and polytechnics and we know that many teachers are finding it difficult to get jobs.

I have concentrated in these few remarks on the English language, but of course there are other professions and trades, teaching in which this country can enable the students on their return to their countries to improve the standards of their fellow citizens. While it is well to remember the old saying, "Trade follows the flag", in this case we might say "Trade will go with the students". It is not a question of being generous to the students because there is considerable spin-off; we get so much back, not only in friendship but in contracts. It is natural that a student in Germany will later buy German products and instruments and so on. In replying to UKCOSA, the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said: Individuals who consider they are facing exceptional hardship"— this is about students"— and are not covered by the Government aid programme, should draw their problems to the attention of their college and the local education authority. Any extension of the fee support scheme at the ODM is a matter for that Department". That shows a division; first, one must go to the local authority and, if they turn one down, one may be able to go to the Department. Noble Lords may remember the difficulty the Biafra students had. I was a Member of Parliament at the time and I experienced great difficulty getting support for them to enable them to continue their tuition in this country.

UKCOSA has already reported that the very high fees, the cutback and the stringent control of numbers has affected students adversely. That is worrying, and while I realise it is not possible for us to have entirely open doors, the Government should be a little more flexible. To use fees as a deterrent is unfortunate because it means education and training being for the rich overseas students at the expense of the poor. And what will happen to those already here? They may be in the same plight as the Biafrans when their Government even cut off their supplies. They may have to return before their studies are completed. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has stated: If the demand from home students increases on the scale envisaged, universities can be expected to respond as they have always done by maintaining opportunities for university study". Even the University Grants Committee says it can manage 3 per cent. more students from this country in the universities. The Grub Institute report points out that we have one in ten students in higher education and one in three in academic education. The Government will have seen, and the suggestions have been quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, about the new fees policy put forward by UKCOSA. This was set out in May 1978 and perhaps the noble Baroness may be able to comment on that tonight.

I have worked with students overseas and in this country, both civilians and students at Dartmouth who stayed with me always for Christmas when I was living in Devonport. I am now the working and elected president of the International Friendship League. We try to give special attention to students and give them a welcome. We are shortly opening another hostel for them in Gloucester and the chairman happens to be a Guyanese. We are very proud to have a Guyanese as a future branch chairman of Gloucester. We are opening that hostel on 19th August, and if the noble Baroness happens to be there we would be very pleased to welcome her.

12.16 a.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sainsbury deserves the thanks of the House, and indeed of many people outside the House concerned with this important matter, for initiating this debate and seeking a declaration of Government policy before we rise for the Summer Recess and perhaps for a General Election. For my part I warmly support his proposal for a national commission on overseas students.

My own interest in the subject lies partly, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said, on the European Community front, but it lies equally in the fact that some years ago I was one of those who helped to found the Council for Education in the Commonwealth and was later the last holder of the post of Commonwealth Secretary. I certainly found in those days ample firsthand evidence of how much our success in this country in creating a multiracial Commonwealth was due to the fact that such a high proportion of the leaders of the new Commonwealth had their education here in this country and had firsthand experience of our liberal, humane and tolerant society.

When I went round the Commonwealth last year to assist in the preparation of the Heads of Government Conference, I was struck by the number of political leaders who, during their visit here for that Conference, wanted to renew their educational links in one way or another; to go back to the Inn of Court where they had studied. One leader simply wanted to re-visit the landlady of his student days, a Scottish lady whose behaviour to a then obscure African student teacher has certainly done as much for Commonwealth understanding as any of us who are politicians.

Indeed, as Commonwealth Secretary I long ago came to the conclusion that Commonwealth relations were much too important a matter to be left to the politicians. It is in the sharing of a common educational experience here in the United Kingdom by teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and journalists, that has been one of the essential elements of the Commonwealth. We have lost some of that sense of the importance of this in the years that have passed since a Conservative Government took the lead in establishing the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme or a Labour Government took the lead in setting up the Commonwealth Secretariat.

I fully recognise the complex changes that have taken place since those days, the pressures on public expenditure in the country; the natural pride in new educational institutions in the developing countries; the argument that educationally it is more cost-effective overseas than here; the danger of a brain drain from the developing countries or illegal immigration and of developing countries subsidising Britain through their educated people staying here instead of going back. These are all very real problems that have developed and have to be recognised.

No one, I am sure, would accuse the present Secretary of State for Education and Science of having anything other than a great compassion for the people who come from developing countries and a great deal of knowledge and experience of them. But the truth is that the way the Government are organised—as the Overseas Student Trust, in its booklet that has been referred to, emphasised—the Department of Education and Science is concerned for all education in England and Wales, while the Ministry of Overseas Development covers the entire United Kingdom aid programme which sponsors students from the developing world. They are only a small part. The situation is similar with the other eight Departments that have been mentioned.

The case for a national commission is that it would be able to look at these problems as a whole instead of having each separate Department concerned with its own interests. I believe that with the help of representatives from the various bodies specially concerned with the affairs of overseas students, the commission would act as a point of co-ordination for these conflicting departmental views. The British tradition of responsibility for overseas students is, I believe, too wide, too far ranging and too crucial to be decided on a narrow, domestic departmental basis.

Apart from helping to suggest a coherent national strategy for the immediate future, the commission, I believe, would also be able to give balanced advice on two important longer-term developments. The first is the place of the overseas student population in this country in the 'eighties and 'nineties, when the numbers of those of conventional student age in this country will be falling. One noble Lord mentioned the Government report on student numbers in the 'eighties and' nineties. It is rather paradoxical that at a time when there is concern about empty lecture rooms and even talk about redundant universities, we should be getting into a mood of acquiescing in a reduction of the number of overseas students. Like other noble Lords, I am puzzled about the estimates of 44,000 regarding a fall in the number of overseas students in the years ahead. I personally believe that a more imaginative and sensitive policy in the future towards our overseas students might well make a useful contribution not only towards their welfare and towards the wider world issues which we have been discussing, but also towards making adequate use of our universities in the years ahead.

The second major challenge for the future about which I want to say a few words is the new European Community dimension to our national existence. Education has been a major element in creating a Commonwealth consciousness. In the same way I believe that educational exchanges within the European Community can play a big part in creating a consciousness of being a citizen of Europe. As the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, mentioned, the European Commission has recently published a document on the admission to institutions of higher education of students from other Member States. It is a little sad to see from that document that the United Kingdom acts as host to only about a quarter of the numbers of Community students received in French and German places of higher education. Very nearly twice as many United Kingdom students go to Community universities, compared to the number that we receive here.

I personally find it even sadder to note that Britain, along with Ireland and Belgium, are in the minority who charge Community students more than they charge home students. I think it is difficult to reconcile this situation with our obligations as Members of the European Community. It is surely inconceivable not to make an arrangement for equal treatment for Community students as compared with students from the Commonwealth and from other developing countries. Surely there is room in higher Community education for a big and beneficial two-way flow of students between Britain and other Community countries. I hope that my noble friend in her reply will be able to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and give a Government reaction to the Community report, which he tells us has been awaited since February.

In conclusion, I believe that the fact that we have had to have this debate tonight and that it is a repetition of a debate of similar character two and a half years ago is a sign that we in this country have become much more introspective and insular over the pas 10 or 15 years. This affects our attitude to students from the Commonwealth and now to students from the European Community. I personally hope that this is only a temporary aberration, brought about by current economic pressures, from what I regard as the deeply-rooted British tradition of being outward-looking in these matters. One reason why I feel strongly that the establishment of the National Commission would help is that I believe it would help to restore us to our former traditional attitudes in this matter. I therefore very much hope that, when my noble friend comes to reply, the Government will be able to give a sympathetic response to the proposals put forward by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury.

12.25 a.m.


My Lords, I should like to echo the gratitude which has been expressed by other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, for raising this truly important matter. Lord Sainsbury said in his opening remarks that he detected among the overseas students in this country at the present time a certain feeling of not being wanted. I do not disagree with that diagnosis. I think that the overseas students are deeply disturbed. What I should like to say, however, is that I think this frame of mind is comparatively recent. I have spent more than half a century teaching in an institution which caters for a very substantial proportion of overseas students from both the richer and the poorer parts of the world. On the whole, I would say that, in the past, the mood of those overseas students who passed through our hands was not unsatisfactory. Indeed, if one travels about the world, as one tends to do in later years, one is gratified, if not surprised, to find the incredible degree of loyalty which exists in the breasts of former alumni, at any rate of the institution where I have had the good fortune to be a teacher.

The trouble has arisen in the last few years, and I regret to say that it has arisen because of the actions of Government. It arises, for instance, because of all this talk about compulsory quotas. What a distasteful conception this is ! How grateful we must all be to the vice-chancellors, who have repudiated the suggestion! Not only is it distasteful: it is immensely short-sighted. It would be difficult, I think, to over-estimate the gain, both direct and indirect, of the opportunities that we have had in the last half century of entertaining those who did us the honour of coming to study in this country rather than elsewhere.

Secondly, there is discrimination. It is possible, I suppose, to get too indignant about discrimination. It is practised in some other parts of the world. I do not think that it causes very much trouble in the United States, where different States discriminate between native-born students and students from other parts of the Union. But certainly it is something which is alien to our traditions.

I, personally, feel a certain sense of shame that we at the moment discriminate against students from overseas. I think of the students that I myself have had in the past. My thoughts, as I was listening to the noble Lord who spoke last, lit upon the recollection of Dr. Emminger, who did the London School of Economics the honour of coming to listen to our lectures in the early 'thirties. How ashamed I should have felt in registering Dr. Emminger, if that had fallen to my lot (which it did not) and saying: "You are German; therefore you must pay x per cent. higher than if you came from Wales or Scotland or Northumbria or London". To me, this is an alien conception. It is a conception which, whether they can afford it or not, is something which causes deep resentment on the part of the students from overseas.

The main problem at this moment is the problem of fees, with or without discrimination. This is a very complex question. I have no doubt at all that there is much to be said in general, provided that in other ways hardship is avoided, for some raising of the proportion of universities' income which comes from fees, as it did in the inter-war period. As regards present arrange ments, I do not find there is all that falling off in applications for admission to university in this country from the richer parts of the world. But there is real and genuine hardship among the people who come from the poorer parts of the world. I suggest, respectfully, that it is really a disgraceful thing that Government action in this respect should force universities to trench upon their already squeezed and limited funds to remove the hardships which are being suffered under their noses every day of the week.

That leads me to the last point that I should like to make. I am extremely attracted by the idea which was thrown out by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, that the chief responsibility for co-ordinating the sort of policy which has been the main desideratum of the speeches delivered this evening should fall on those responsible for foreign aid. It is possible to take many views about foreign aid and there are some forms of foreign aid which, in my judgement, have been very largely wasted; but I am quite certain that we do not waste aid to the extent that we spend it on educating people from the poorer countries who would not otherwise be able to come here at all. Therefore it seems to me an extremely good idea that the aid-giving authority should be the focus of this commission.

In my experience in Government service, commissions which are constituted by eminent people drawn from different departments, all on a plane of equality, tend to be rather on the fringe. It is most essential that there should be a central responsibility somewhere attaching to some definite Department. Serious thought deserves to be given to the suggestion that in so far as we try to co-ordinate our arrangements in regard to these visitors from abroad, the coordination should be initiated by those responsible for aid.


My Lords, I ask forgiveness for intervening. I will be very brief, and I apologise to my noble friend who is to answer. But I merely want to stand up and he counted on this issue. I agree with everything that has been said, and I merely want to reinforce it by saying that in all my experience of about 30 years I have been trying to promote the sharing of knowledge and skills throughout the world. The easiest, cheapest and most effective form is the kind of education that we should provide, and it should be overseas aid. I do not care whether it is Europe—and I say this to my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth—or to developing countries, it is the best investment that we can make. This is one way in which we secure, in terms of the future and communications not only from one country to another, but from generation to another, and it is absolutely essential.

12.36 a.m.


My Lords, I thought that I ought to begin by explaining to the House that my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge is abroad on official duties and as the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, has said, my noble friend Lady Stedman, our other Government spokesman, is unwell. I am most grateful for the good wishes which I shall pass on. I hope that the House does not feel there is any discourtesy in my taking over my noble friend's Unstarred Question. I rather dreaded it; I thought I was going to be jolly tired by the time we came to it, but I have seldom enjoyed a debate more. It has been a magnificent debate.

It is a tradition in this House to thank the noble Lord who raises a Question like this, but in this case it is much more than an empty compliment. The fact that at nearly 20 minutes to one o'clock in your Lordships' House, after an extremely hard day, we should have such a marvellous contribution from so many experienced people, and that it was all elicited from your Lordships' House by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury, who organised it, is a great tribute. If I may say so, it proves very much—if anybody doubted it—the enormous care and concern that there is in this House, and indeed by the Government, for overseas students.

I should like to make it clear at once, and at the beginning, that the Government entirely share the views expressed about overseas students and their needs, and that we regard it as of very great importance. I should like to say once again that the presence of overseas students in our colleges and universities is wholly welcome, and that is the message that we should like to go out tonight from this debate. Of course, the opportunity to study here is of enormous value to the students themselves and to their own countries, and, as many noble Lords have said—especially the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—it is of special value to the developing countries. As most noble Lords have suggested, the benefits are very far from one-sided. The noble Baroness stressed that. We were all very moved by her description of the English-speaking school in Malaysia, and we all know of her work there and are deeply grateful for it. In fact, the largest group of students in the United Kingdom comes from Malaysia. There are 12,000 of them, as the noble Baroness knows.

I must say at this point that it will probably be impossible for me to answer every point that has been raised tonight because it has been an extremely "meaty" debate. We have not just had sentimental vapourings; it has been full of figures and, for me, very difficult questions to answer. I hope that, if I leave anybody out, they will forgive me. What everybody stressed was that overseas students enrich the institutions they attend, and they do so in many ways; intellectually, culturally and in many other ways. Working and living alongside students from other societies helps to prepare our own people for the increasing inter-dependency of the world in which we are all going to live, and especially the generations coming after us. They gain from working with overseas students in a way they could not possibly do if they were left in an exclusively domestic atmosphere. And of course there are the other benefits referred to: future trading relations and our external relations generally. I was very much struck by what my noble friends Lord Davies of Leek and Lord Thomson of Monifieth said about the amazing number of political leaders one meets going around the world who have had their education here, and of what tremendous importance this is.

So there is no question but that we are all deeply concerned about this. But it is absolutely true that very few people could be entirely happy that all is well in the situation, and tonight's debate has made that very clear. I hope that noble Lords will accept the fact that it gives the Government absolutely no pleasure to restrict the number of overseas students, for example: nor does the fee differential between home and overseas students in any way lighten our hearts. Nobody believes, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, rather hinted, that everything is perfect; and I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, that nobody likes quotas: none of us wants them.

In answer to the very serious and thoughtful speech by the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, who also referred to quotas, I am afraid I cannot give him the answer he wants. It is too early to say how the policy will actually work out, since the quota applies to the academic year of 1978–9, which has not yet properly started. Nobody likes it at all. But it is important to recognise—and this has been overlooked, I think,—that in the early 1970s the number of overseas students was 32,000. The resources allocated for the next academic year are for 72,000. That is a very great increase in less than a decade, and one which is proportionately far greater than the overall increase in student numbers in that period. So in all the circumstances I think we are doing a great deal for overseas students, though I may repeat again that none of us thinks it is perfect or even enough.

I was particularly touched by the speech of my noble friend Lord Sainsbury and by the humanity with which he described the distress in which many of the students live. As the director of a charitable education trust for ten years, I administered their grants and looked after their families, and I know only too well the difficulties they experience. I may say that the DES are issuing further documents on welfare. We have had much valuable advice from UKCOSA on what to put into our documents, and we are doing all we can.

I think that almost every noble Lord referred to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for a commission. I should like to say frankly and at once that I can well understand the sense of frustration which the noble Lord feels that the Government have not been able up to now to give a clear response to the proposals. But this is not because the proposals have been pigeon-holed or overlooked. It is simply because it is an extremely valuable contribution: we want to think it out. We want to be sure that we get it right.

I entirely understand the attraction of the idea of having some cohesive—I think that was the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—overall body to collect all the problems together, and to have somehwere where the students could go. But there are many difficulties which have to be resolved in regard to that. For example, we have to be quite clear as to whether the Commission would be purely advisory, whether it would have some involvement in policy-making—perhaps even an executive role. There are many implications for Ministers in the exercise of their responsibilities in that regard. There is, too, the question of the structure of the commission. Two or three noble Lords mentioned the fascinating document Freedom to Study, which was prepared by the Grub Institute for the Overseas Students Trust, and that made some interesting comments on this point of structure. I do not necessarily think that the comments were right, but this shows that there are many differing views. Just because the proposal is important and extremely valuable, so it is important that we get it right. Above all, I am sure it is right that this proposal should be considered in the context of the wider and more fundamental review of our policy about overseas students, which the Government are now carrying out.

Of course, we are aware of the urgency; I should not want anybody to think that we were not. There are so many things that we want to do. My noble friend Lord Thomson referred to the EEC students. We have a little more than 2,000 EEC students, while we send 3,000 there. That is quite true. The Government are very conscious of our duties to the EEC, and this figures in all our thinking in the study that we are making now. But I must again stress that we have 72,000 students from abroad—that is, about 10 per cent.—and very few countries, if any, do anything on this scale. We also want to consider our students from the Commonwealth and from the developing nations, perhaps as the first priority. Perhaps I ought not to give actual priorities, but I think a lot of us feel that.

I must come back to the fact that we have to look at the scale of provision for overseas students in the context of overall provision. Universities and colleges, as the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, knows, face growing demands from home students, and the Government have to decide from time to time upon the total of resources which can be made available to these institutions. I am sure the House will accept that overseas students cannot be considered in isolation from these wider considerations. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Sainsbury himself said that they must be considered together. So it is all the more important that what we spend on overseas students is spent in the best possible ways.

Apart from the 10,000 or so who come under selective support schemes from the ODM, the FCO and the British Council, which the noble Lord mentioned, the majority, as we all know, come on their own initiative. That, of course, is not at all a bad thing in itself, but it means that we cannot be sure whether we are meeting the real needs, either of the poorest countries or of the students, and that is a particularly important matter which noble Lords will, I am sure, be glad to know we are paying special attention to in our general review.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, wanted to discuss figures of subsidies and fees. The costs per student vary very much by institutions, subjects and so on, but the fees recoup some 25 to 30 per cent. of the total. I should like to remind him, as I am sure he knows, that the total subsidy to overseas students in one year is about £100 million, which is not at all to be despised in our present economic situation. We have, as I have said, been examining the whole question and our study is almost complete, so that we are not in any sense proceeding along a series of ad hoc decisions, which worried the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn.

There will not be any sudden announcement of new policies in this field, because when we are ready to put out our proposals we must have the fullest consultation with all the educational interests and with all the bodies, especially concerned with overseas students, just as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, asked, and we shall do that before reaching any final decisions. I cannot say exactly when this consultation will begin, but I can assure the House that it will be very soon. We are considering the proposal for a Commission entirely within this context.

There is a great deal which I should like to say in reply to the remarks which various noble Lords have made. May I refer to the figures which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, and by my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth as appearing in the document Higher Education into the 1990s. The figure for overseas students of 44,000 is comparable with the figure of 66,000, because the difference relates to those on non-advanced courses.

I do not think that I ought to go into very much more detail now, although I will do so if any noble Lord feels that I have left out anything special. If I may return to the central theme of the debate, there are difficulties involved in getting the proposals for a commission exactly right, and I am sure that it is right for them to be considered within the context of the wider and more fundamental review of policy which is taking place.


My Lords, am I to understand that before the Government decide definitely what kind of commission they want they could have further discussions, unofficially, with UKCOSA and the Council for Education in the Commonwealth?


My Lords, I am sure that they could. What I was really describing at that moment were the consultations about the wider studies that we are doing and that we shall send out to institutions, colleges, universities, local authorities and so on. However, as the noble Lord knows, we have very close contacts with UKCOSA. We are always grateful for their advice. We welcome suggestions, and I am sure that we can discuss the matter officially, unofficially, ministerially and in any other way that the noble Lord wants.

I think that I ought to come to a close; I have been speaking for a quarter of an hour. It has been a very valuable debate, and I am not just saying that lightly. Despite the hour, I welcome very warmly all the speeches which have been made. I deeply regret only that the debate had to take place just before the Government could put forward their considered views on the whole subject, but I repeat my assurance that they will not be long delayed and that the Government look forward to what will undoubtedly be a very lively debate when the consultations begin.