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Mr. McNulty: I do not underestimate some of the difficulties that many universities are experiencing, but I challenge the notion that either a £50 increase in the cost of visas—the first hook on which all the malaise of the HE sector was hung—or what the Bill says about appeals is absolutely and quintessentially, which is how the universities sometimes put it, the reason for the malaise that affects some courses. There are substantive reasons for the fact that the huge success of the HE sector in recent years is now being challenged. The language used by some members of the sector suggests that the entire world is crumbling down. It is not—there is a vibrancy about many courses, although I do not dispute the fact that some universities are experiencing difficulties with overseas recruitment for certain courses. What I do dispute, as I told the Universities UK board at a recent meeting, is the casual, causal empiricism that leads people to say that it is all the Home Office's fault and that nothing else in the entire world is causing the malaise.

Mrs. Gillan: If there is absolutely no problem—

Mr. McNulty: No one has said that.

Mrs. Gillan: Then I shall choose my words carefully. If there is a wonderful, thriving, vibrant market in international students in Europe, why is the President of the European Union proposing that foreign students completing doctorates in Europe should be offered citizenships in an effort to lure them into that market, and why is the Prime Minister backing that idea as part of his liberal reform agenda? Why did he push it during his presidency, which of course will end in December?

Mr. McNulty: With respect, that is another issue entirely. It is a post-education issue.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I want to thank the Minister for helping me with a difficult case that has been on my desk for the past few months. A few weeks ago, I met the chancellor and vice-chancellor of Hertfordshire university, who were having particular
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problems with Chinese students. I shall not go into those problems now, but would the Minister mind if I wrote to him about them?

Mr. McNulty: I should be happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me, and for the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) to do likewise. I listened carefully to his rather lengthy recitation of the difficulties affecting the Institute of St Anselm. I think that many of his complaints relate to clause 4, which deals with entry clearance, rather than to new clause 1 and amendment No. 3, but if there are continuing problems affecting the institute and I can help with them, I shall be more than happy to oblige. Nevertheless, I disagree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's starting point, which is that the 19 cases that he mentioned prove that the Bill is not appropriate.

I should have made a point at the beginning of my speech. Someone kindly alluded to it earlier, and I accept that it is a difficulty. The Bill must be seen not just in the context of the consultation paper on the points system—consultation ended only on 7 November—but, as I said in Committee, in the context of all that we are trying to do in regard to the entry clearance officer decision-making process. I said in Committee, and will say again, that I accept the charge that all ECO decision making throughout the entire world that takes place under the auspices of UKvisas could, broadly, be improved. I have committed myself to ensuring that those improvements are undertaken now, and will continue to do so. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) kindly read out probably the most turgid remarks that I made in Committee about the link between the commencement of the orders on appeal and the improvements in ECO decision making. I shall say more about that later.

Adam Afriyie: I thank the Minister for giving way so gracefully. I hope that his answer will be equally graceful. May I be bold enough to suggest that he sets a target for reducing the number of incorrect decisions to allow an appeal before the Bill is implemented?

Mr. McNulty: I take that point, which is germane to what I just said about the link between commencement orders and other matters. However, I shall not go down that road. I think most fair-minded people would accept that the position is not as clear-cut as "successful appeal equals bad initial decision"—[Interruption.] That is the import of what the hon. Gentleman was suggesting. He should calm down.

Limited empirical evidence from the National Audit Office and material that we discussed in Committee suggest that up to 50 per cent. of problems—happily only 50 per cent.—were caused by inaccurate or incomplete documentation at the start of the process, or by the absence of some element at the start of the decision making. We need to explore those issues, and I shall be more than happy to do so in a moment. However, the crude notion that appeal success equals bad initial decision is simply not sustainable.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): My hon. Friend's comments about the vibrancy of universities were
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welcome, but his account of their complaints was a travesty of the way in which I interpret what I consider to be genuine concerns. Many cases are overturned as a result of initial decisions because academics draw attention to problems, and a manager examines the position again. How will the Bill deal with that? Surely the poor decision making in the Department is due to the complexity of the legislation and the ever-increasing number of changes that the Government are introducing. Would not better and better administration be preferable to more and more legislation?

Mr. McNulty: With respect, that is entirely wrong in most instances. I was not traducing or undermining anything that the universities had said. I fully recognise that there are difficulties in the sector. What I dispute is the causal link between the Bill and visa fees. I spent some 14 years in the sector, so I know and understand it. I also understand that it is now entirely different from how it was then.

My hon. Friend's other point is important in the context of the points system and the five-year plan. There is a separate tier for students. There is a far stronger accreditation system, rather than the simple flick-switch that caused some of the early difficulties that the hon. Member for North Thanet mentioned, where an institute is good or bad with nothing in between—no gradation, no notion of its past experience or anything else. There are also the elements to improve decision making. Those issues go to the heart of how to move on and to improve the welcome for overseas students.

We are seeking to address all the other elements that are difficult for the sector through the joint education task force and close working with Universities UK and others, including, it is often forgotten, the FE sector. Therefore, I do not accept many of the premises that have been put forward. It must be about making decision making better, rather than hanging on to an appeals process that often means that the appeal is heard, if one is lucky, some two and a half years down the line.

3 pm

Dr. Evan Harris: I think the Minister fairly reflects the disagreement in the Standing Committee about whether the high proportion of appeals that were won by applicants was due to poor decision making or new factors coming in. However, I think the point was made in Committee that when appeals go in, the papers are supposed to be collected by the entry clearance manager, who has the opportunity to reverse a decision that was made on the basis of incomplete information. When the manager does not do that, there has been a second opportunity, with all the information the appeal has, for that to be corrected, so the point still stands about poor decision making overall.

Mr. McNulty: I do not think that it does. I specifically refer to the 900 or 1,000 decisions that were looked at by the NAO, or whoever it was—if it was not the NAO, I apologise. That was done deliberately before a second sift, as I understand it, by the entry clearance manager. The paperwork that was initially submitted was examined. I absolutely accept that there are difficulties across the HE sector, but I do not accept, as I have said,
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that they are ultimately connected, simply put, to fee structures or to what we are doing on appeals. I cannot say loudly enough that the Government and the House, on a cross-party basis, will continue to work as closely as possible with the HE sector to ensure that those overseas students continue to get good service.

I accept the point that was made by some hon. Members, who are not in their places any more, that it is about far more than the initial three or four-year experience of the overseas students. I happened to teach a number of people who were overseas students and who are still friends. There is that initial contact at, if one likes, elite level, but then there is contact at a more general level, and affection for the country where one did that initial study. None of that I refute in any way, but we think—in the context of the five-year plan, the points system and all the improvements that we are trying to make in terms of ECO decision making—that the way forward that we are suggesting, with those elements rather than simply what is in the Bill, has merit for students.

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