Student Visas - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-42)

PROFESSOR ERIC THOMAS AND NEIL CARBERRY

24 MARCH 2011

Q1   Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you both for your evidence and agreeing to come before the inquiry today. Obviously this has been a rapidly moving issue and we are very interested in getting your reaction to the announcements made on Tuesday and the implications for you. Before we start the questioning, could you just introduce yourselves so that we can get voice levels and transcription right.

Professor Thomas: I am Eric Thomas. I am the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol and Vice-President of Universities UK.

Neil Carberry: I am Neil Carberry. I am Director of Employment Affairs at the CBI.

Q2   Chair: Thanks very much. Can we just start with a fairly general question? How would you summarise the benefits of international students to the UK?

Professor Thomas: The first benefit of an international student is an academic benefit. In other words, we are bringing in highly talented individuals who bring different intellectual viewpoints to our universities, different cultural backgrounds. They add to the intellectual and academic mix; they affect our own students. In other words, their interactions with our students provide a broader and wider academic environment, and of course there has been a very, very long history of student mobility over the centuries among universities. So their primary benefit for us is an academic, intellectual benefit, but they also, nowadays, contribute very significantly to the income of universities. At a time when other income levels are constrained, this is an important income stream for us and also for the economy.

Neil Carberry: I wouldn't disagree with what Eric said there. I think from a business point of view the capacity to bring into the UK potentially high-flying future graduates in fields like science, technology and maths enhances the ability of UK universities to work with business on some of the high-technology manufacturing work that businesses are interested in pursuing alongside universities, enhancing the quality of graduates available to UK businesses and, of course, often supporting the continued existence of key departments in universities on the financial basis that Eric has set out.

Q3   Chair: A question to UUK: your press release does give the impression that you are pleased with the outcome of the review. Do you think that the problems that we have had with student visas are now over?

Professor Thomas: The first thing to say is that quite a lot of change had occurred in the previous two years about the visa system, which I think had made the situation significantly better. We are pleased with the outcome of the recommendations made last Tuesday. We do genuinely feel that both the UK Border Agency and the Government listened; they involved themselves in considerable discussions with us; they were open to our suggestions; they recognised the problems that significant constraints on student visas may cause us; and they have addressed virtually all of our concerns in the recommendations that they have put forward.

Q4   Chair: Do you anticipate that basically all those applicants that want to come to universities, and it is appropriate and legitimate for them to be there, will be allowed in now?

Professor Thomas: I think it is fair to say that that is what we anticipate. We will be interested to see how it operates. It is like many things to do with visas, the devil comes in the detail, and we are going to work through the operation obviously with UKBA but I think that the answer to your question is yes.

Q5   Chair: Will you be involved with—shall we say—working on the process for this with UKBA?

Professor Thomas: Universities UK has had a member of staff in UKBA permanently over the last few months. We are now working much closer with them in addressing the issue. So the answer is we will be involved, but obviously they will be the main agency.

Q6   Chair: I just turn to the CBI now, really the equivalent question: do you think the issue is now being solved as far as business is concerned?

Neil Carberry: I think the principal issue, yes, has largely been resolved. The key things that we set out in our response to the Home Office in January were that there should be protection for graduate level and pre-graduate level entry in the new system and that the post-study work route should be retained, albeit targeted to ensure that it is economically beneficial. I think the statement made on Tuesday largely ticks both of those boxes.

Q7   Chair: Have you been involved with the UKBA in devising appropriate processes?

Neil Carberry: Yes, and I have to say that over the last couple of years both the Home Office and the UKBA part of it have come a long way in working with outside stakeholders. I think it is appropriate to record in this session the appreciation that we and I know other stakeholders feel for that in terms of making the system work rather better in the real world.

Q8   Paul Blomfield: Both UUK and CBI were concerned about the initial proposals on the closure of the post-study work route, and while I recognise the need to develop a positive public narrative arising from the genuine changes that have been made, I detect from talking to vice-chancellors that there remains a concern that the new arrangements are probably still too restrictive and perhaps need some greater flexibility. I wonder what you both felt about that. In particular, for example, is the £20,000 threshold going to be too restrictive in terms of regional variations, sectoral variations?

Professor Thomas: The first thing is there are two aspects to post-study work. The first is the ability to be able to do it is an important recruitment tool and therefore it had been closed off that would have been a very difficult issue with us because other countries offer it as a recruitment tool, and then only a percentage of people take it up. So the fact it is an option brings people to the country but only a percentage is taken up. It is quite difficult to work out exactly the number. We think probably around about 22%, possibly a little bit more; it is difficult to do that data.

  We don't feel that for most industries £20,000 is too much of a barrier, but we do feel in arts and for musicians that that may well be a significant issue when the average starting salary for those individuals is about £17,000. I think, as I said to the Chair, it will be working on the ground and working this through will be what proves to us whether it is an issue or not. It certainly is something that causes us a little concern, but the fact that we are able to say to our potential applicants that there are the opportunities for post-study work was the crucial issue for us.

Neil Carberry: There is clearly a line to be drawn in any managed migration policy between the economic desirability of having a certain individual in the country doing work and the potential impact of that on the domestic workforce. Therefore in any post-study work you have to draw the line somewhere and I think we are fairly comfortable with the £20,000 limit, because if you look at the major graduate schemes that is sufficient to qualify people in most cases.

  Where I think there is more concern on the business is in the frequency with which the rules in areas like this can change, and is something that we would look to work with UKBA on in the coming months. We had an incident earlier this month in Tier 2, in the business tiers, where the salary requirements were changed with very little notice and then corrected because it was a mistake. But these are changes which affect people's lives and I think, in terms of looking to the delivery of post-study work, what we would be wanting to see is some stability about the expectations of what individuals will have in order to qualify for the visa.

Q9   Paul Blomfield: Can I push just a little further, in that I have just quickly looked at starting salaries for one of the universities in my own constituency and the mean starting salaries just fall under, very close, at £19,900 at Sheffield. While there wouldn't be problems probably in engineering or in medicine and related areas, pure science falls well below that and I wondered in that context whether you wouldn't agree that some greater flexibility in the application of that rule would be helpful.

Professor Thomas: It is interesting. We have had discussions with two major scientific institutions, Wellcome and Sanger, who don't think that £20,000 would be a significant problem for them. Essentially where we are in this is things like post-docs, which are crucial parts of the scientific endeavour, but their information for us is that should not be a problem. What it will probably mean, I think, is that the post-doc salary becomes £20,000 a year.

Q10   Simon Kirby: My question is addressed to the CBI. Could I put it to you that there are additional benefits of having international students studying in this country, one of which is the direct link with inward investment in an increasingly global economy. Is that not a huge potential benefit?

Neil Carberry: Certainly in the broader context, we have been clear in the whole of the work permit reform to encourage Government to think about businesses working in Britain supporting jobs in Britain, based on doing business around the globe, and making sure that the system supports a growth agenda. I think, as part of that, it is certainly true that students from outside the EEA are often brought into companies here from universities here and then returned to their home markets or somewhere in the region with global British companies. That is clearly a benefit. I think by comparison with the importance of Tier 2, it is probably less of the major issue, but clearly it does add value to the attraction of the UK as a place to base head offices.

Q11   Simon Kirby: For the record, Chair—and this is anecdotal and I apologise for that—on our visit to China, it was quite clear to me that certainly in the Chinese mind there was a direct link between the access to education and the desire to do business in partnership. I think that is very difficult to argue against.

Neil Carberry: Yes, I would accept that.

Q12   Paul Blomfield: Just very briefly to Professor Thomas. Is it your understanding from the discussions that you have had with the Home Office that post-doc or post-graduate applications for teaching and research posts in universities would be through the Tier 2 or Tier 4 route?

Professor Thomas: Through the Tier 2 route predominantly, and also the ranking system has given additional weight to PhD-level activity.

Q13   Rebecca Harris: This is to Professor Thomas really. Previously your president, Professor Steve Smith, said that any reduction in international students could affect our teaching here in STEM subjects, and I just wondered if you could expand on that?

Professor Thomas: Did you say STEM, sorry?

Rebecca Harris: Yes.

Professor Thomas: There are some STEM courses which have a significant dependence for their sustainability on international students and, therefore, if there had been a significant reduction in international students coming to them, it could have made those courses unsustainable. There is no cap, and the way the system looks as if it is going to work, we will still have anxieties about that, but we probably have anxieties about such courses anyway, obviously. But we will just have to see how things go going forward.

Q14   Rebecca Harris: Presumably, if that were a problem, this could potentially affect wider industry, like the ability of universities to attract post-graduate research and that kind of thing.

Professor Thomas: Yes. We think the situation we are in now is manageable in those circumstances.

Q15   Rebecca Harris: I would like to expand a little bit on what Simon was saying. Would you say that knowledge of cultural differences is important for British business and how much, for example, an international MBA student might help us to develop trade and export links abroad?

Neil Carberry: Absolutely vital. I think British businesses have long gone beyond the world in which you send someone who essentially looks like me to Latin America to sell a British product. That is a difficult sell. Increasingly we work in a global environment and we seek to bring into businesses the kinds of people who understand the markets in which we are asking them to work. Certainly, we had a very powerful example at the time we were working on the Tier 2 system around a major British plc who were desperately trying to hire someone from South America in order to take a traditional British brand into South America and were having some difficulty with that under the proposals before the Home Secretary's November announcement.

So from that point of view, it is clearly the agenda of companies to understand the market in which they work and that will require a greater degree of global mobility in the future than perhaps there has been in the past. But what I would emphasise is for the most part for British companies that kind of transfer is net migration neutral. There are as many people leaving UK-based companies as coming in. Certainly, if you go around the table of our major members they would tend to take that view. That is why we push very hard for some of the controls of the ICTs to be set up the way they are in order to encourage businesses to retain headquarters in the UK, because of course that has significant additional benefits to the British workforce in terms of additional jobs here. I think that principle holds for international students as well.

Q16   Mr Ward: Can I just add on to that? When I did an MBA at the University of Bradford I think a third of the course were from overseas. I certainly was not aware of any effort being made to see that as an asset and to utilise it. We basically came there and we all went then away 15 months later or whatever it was. Is there a co-ordinated strategy and, if there isn't, should there be one for making the most of this great asset that we have, which is people coming to this country to study?

Neil Carberry: We are very, very conscious of the need to improve links between business and our higher education institutions as part of the strategy for growth in the UK, and indeed we published a major piece of work about 18 months ago on business-university links and the need to strengthen them. I am very happy to let the Committee to have that as written evidence after this session if that would be helpful.

Q17   Chair: Can I just tease out a comment that was made earlier and its implications. Earlier, I believe it was Professor Thomas who said that, if you like, post-grad students were coming through the Tier 2 route. Did I get that right?

Professor Thomas: No, that is for post-study work.

Chair: Post-study work, right.

Professor Thomas: Post-study work is now being done under Tier 2.

Chair: Right, thank you. Post-study work. Interestingly, Tier 2 also covers skilled workers with a job offer and intra-corporate transfers below £40,000 salary levels. There is a cap of 20,700 on that. In light of what you said earlier that you expected, in effect, students to be able to get it here—and I would include post-study workers on that—is that going to be enough?

Professor Thomas: I don't think the students in post-study work are going to be part of that 20,700; that is my understanding. So that is 20,700 individuals coming for a job. My understanding is that currently that is higher than the number of individuals that are admitted under Tier 2 as it stands. Of course Tier 1 is being abolished and we don't know what the implications for the number of applications will then be as a consequence of that into Tier 2, but at the moment that is higher than the current Tier 2 applications.

Q18   Chair: So you are saying that with the abolition of Tier 1, which had a cap 1,000, they might come in via Tier 2 and that could impact upon it?

Professor Thomas: In which case then I would personally expect the number of applications on Tier 2 to rise. I am just not sure what level they would rise to. But to stress that, of course, if decisions are being made on rankings, specific notice has been taken of the kind of things that would give a higher ranking because of academic issues. What they call the PhD activities, research and development managers, chemists, biological sciences, biochemists, physicists, geologists, higher education teaching professionals, scientific researchers, social sciences researchers and researchers not elsewhere classified are given a priority ranking under the new system. You are essentially describing there a group of people that will be wanting to come to universities.

Q19   Nadhim Zahawi: The sharing of research methods is highlighted as being a major benefit of international students. Do you think we could replicate this in business?

Neil Carberry: Yes, and in fact there is some practice ongoing in that regard. Certainly, a number of major multinationals, when doing work outside the EEA, make arrangements with their joint venture partners to bring people into the UK often under Tier 5, and there is a consultation this summer from UKBA on that that we are doing some work on, to build up some knowledge around IP, either in partner higher education institutions that they are working with or in the business's own research establishments. That kind of development is absolutely key to the higher end manufacturing and process industry work that many of our UK multinats are working in.

Q20   Nadhim Zahawi: When the Committee visited China, we heard about difficulties of UK companies gaining visas for their Chinese staff to attend conferences, training courses and so on in the UK. Do these experiences surprise you, or are they part of a more common experience?

Neil Carberry: There is a question about the system and there is a question about the process, and I think we have to be fairly blunt that for China in particular, and East Asia more broadly, after 2008 there were some particular issues with speed of processing and decision-making in Manila, which is the regional hub. I would suspect that some of the reports you heard on your visit relate to that and there was some frustration about that at the time. I think most of that has now been sorted out.

Q21   Nadhim Zahawi: Separately, on a number of visits that I have conducted to the Middle East, for example, I saw evidence of similar frustrations with business visas, but your answer seems to be that you are much more relaxed about it than businesses and local chambers of commerce that I met were portraying.

Neil Carberry: I don't think we are relaxed about in post decision-making, to be honest. It is our impression that the basic design of the system and the policy is right. I think there are certainly still issues with how in post decision-making is done, and from our point of view we would hope that a period of stability would allow UKBA to begin to make sure that that objective decision in post is being made. At the time of PBS being introduced, one of the big changes was to move the decision-making to an in post basis and we, at that time, were very clear that the problem with that is traditionally that has been a subjective decision and I think posts have made variable progress in turning those into objective decisions.

Q22   Nadhim Zahawi: Just on that point, how do we compare with our major European competitors, the Germans, the French and so on?

Neil Carberry: I mentioned Manila. I think during the period of the Manila troubles Britain's image took a bit of a hit with people coming in from countries like Japan and China. For instance, in Germany, if you were a Japanese FD coming to run the finance operation of a Japanese company in Frankfurt you would turn up at Frankfurt airport and you would spend a couple of hours longer there than other travellers and you would get your visa, and you would have the documents with you. Meanwhile, we were asking senior Japanese business professionals to send their passports to Manila for three weeks. One Japanese executive who I was talking to said, "I'm not even sure that's legal under Japanese law." There was a sense that, on the operational side, we were asking fairly senior people to do things that were damaging their effectiveness for a period of weeks when, for instance, colleagues going to Germany were doing it very quickly. Now, if you were a Japanese company making a decision about where to base European headquarters that is clearly a very important factor.

Q23   Nadhim Zahawi: That is very worrying, because I heard exactly the same thing on the other side of the world in the Middle East, where they are asked to submit their passport for two weeks to the embassy in Oman, even if they happen to come from another Middle Eastern country, and wait to be told whether we are going to allow them in or not, versus Schengen visas that are delivered in 24 to 48 hours. Isn't that really the point—that we really did miss out at the most crucial period of the recession?

Neil Carberry: Process speed was an issue from 2008. I know UKBA have made efforts to improve it. There is still some way to go, and I think we are very happy to work with UKBA on examples and on potential improvements.

Q24   Nadhim Zahawi: Let me press you a bit. You say there is some way to go. What would you suggest they do?

Neil Carberry: We would suggest that you apply the same principle that we have tried to encourage them to apply in the system more broadly, which is where people are clearly economically significant you attempt to make the process as swift as possible. For instance, we were clear that we should give priority to Tier 2 over Tier 1, because Tier 2 applicants have a job offer; very clear in Tier 4 that graduates and pre-graduates should have priority because of their higher skill levels. I think in this system we clearly have to have an approach that allows people who are coming into the UK, in large part to take part in a business that is substantially beneficial to the UK economy, can expect to get a decision quickly and an objective decision rather than a subjective decision. Certainly, across the board, we still see examples of—I saw one last week in the student tier where someone was turned away at Heathrow because they didn't have enough funds to do a whole year course. That was because they were only here for a term and that had to be overturned on appeal and someone missed a couple of weeks of their course. So that kind of process requiring appeal is still a problem.

Q25   Nadhim Zahawi: It sounds to me that the system is still not fit for purpose from what you are saying.

Neil Carberry: I think the system design is fit for purpose. I think there is a way to go and a need for more effort in terms of the path people take through the system. It seems to us that many of our major members have spent seven figure sums on their sponsorship systems, and they are delivering the certificates of sponsorship very quickly. They are assessing them correctly, and yet there is still, in the system, a—

Nadhim Zahawi: Sclerosis.

Neil Carberry: A sclerosis. I was going to use the phrase "some treacle", which is slowing things down.

Q26   Mr Ward: Is it sclerosis, which seems to apply to the whole system, or is it simply that authority is not delegated at a low enough level to make quick decisions?

Neil Carberry: I think authority is delegated reasonably far into the system. I would argue that the issue, certainly in the past, in the period between the introduction of the PBS and the current form, has been that authority has got to the frontline but perhaps not a full understanding of what the policy is.

Q27   Nadhim Zahawi: Thank you for that. My next question is really about Highly Trusted Sponsor and the establishment of that, which the Government states will make the visa regime easier to navigate. You and your universities are already Highly Trusted Sponsors, yet you are still experiencing difficulties, would you say?

Professor Thomas: Our experience would reflect very much what Neil was saying that certainly two to two and a half years ago there was significant difficulties but the disciplines required of universities to get Highly Trusted Sponsor status has made a great deal of difference to how we interact over this issue, more effectively, more efficiently, understanding our responsibilities more. Undoubtedly, my international office at Bristol would say that has been a very good process for the university to have to go through and that we have seen the sort of improvements that Neil has been describing over the more recent past. So my head of the international office would say that on balance most of the time the students get their visas in a timely fashion and are able to come to the university.

Q28   Nadhim Zahawi: Would you say those differences are significant now?

Professor Thomas: They are significant now, yes.

Q29   Mr Ward: Could I just ask you whether you feel that the way of controlling public expenditure in the university sector in the past was really through the capping of undergraduates, so post-graduates, external income generation and all that was as much as you can and international students was uncapped. Do you think that put pressure on institutions—not reputable institutions—to be light in their examination of international applications?

Professor Thomas: The answer is I don't know. I can tell you in my own institution that most certainly did not take place—absolutely clearly did not take place. When you are taking international students you are in the very best sense protecting your own brand. It is not in your interests to admit not capable international students, because if other international students come and find that to be the case, it is viral these days; it gets out in next to no time at all whatsoever. So the idea that it is in your interests, or certainly in my interests, to accept low-quality students because they simply are bringing dollars or whatever currency with them is counterproductive, profoundly counterproductive.

The other thing is that the international student market is a very unpredictable and very volatile market. Certainly, when SARS came along we took a £7 million in year hit on students not arriving to the University of Bristol, and when your surplus is £7 million, that is a seriously hit. Therefore, in terms of the way that you would take the university forward in a derisking level, we set out level of international students at about 13% to 14% so as we did not expose ourselves greatly to volatility risks. So, while it might be tempting to think that universities might do what you said, for many reasons it could be profoundly counterproductive for them to do.

Q30   Rebecca Harris: If I could just follow on from that, just to put it another way: do you see any risk of any UK university losing their most trusted status? Can you envisage that happening?

Professor Thomas: My understanding is that there isn't a risk of that at the moment—that is my understanding. I think universities recognise their duties in these circumstances. It is our duty to know which students are coming to us, which students have arrived, how they are doing on the course and what happens to them when they leave, and to be able to answer those questions should they be put. In view of society saying you can bring these individuals to the country against the anxiety about migration then we have to fulfil those duties to be Highly Trusted Sponsors. I think universities take that quite seriously. As I say, the process of going through that over the last two and half years has been very important for universities. I am not aware of a university that is about to lose HTS.

Q31   Nadhim Zahawi: Very quick last two questions, and one is probably more relevant to the next panel, which is the Ministers, but I will ask you as well. The Government is proposing obviously a 20-hour limit on student working. If a research student does more, will they be breaking the terms of their visa? What do you understand the consequences of that action to be and who will be responsible for that? Is it the student or the sponsor or the employer?

Chair: Which one of you will get it in the neck?

Professor Thomas: My understanding is that the person who will get it in the neck will be the student. It bears repetition that only 2% of overseas students to universities are non-compliant. We are not the non-compliant end of the game. If I can be personal, my daughter's partner is a Mexican who is studying a PhD at King's College in London, and he was offered work of 24 hours and he didn't take it because he was so frightened of losing his visa. These are not non-compliant individuals. These are people who it is so important for them to be here and to be experiencing that PhD that they are not going to break the terms.

Q32   Nadhim Zahawi: The differentiation between publicly funded and private universities, is that a good thing? The system is going to differentiate.

Professor Thomas: The system differentiates—

Nadhim Zahawi: The new system.

Professor Thomas: I see, right. I am not quite sure what you mean. You mean the EPP—the entirely private providers—but they will still, I believe, be subject to the same constraints as a publicly funded university.

Q33   Chair: I don't want to introduce a whole line of questioning based on your personal circumstances, but you have just quoted one that was quite interesting. What are the broader implications, in terms of recruiting talented people into business, of the regulation as it stands—the 20-hour limit? Is there any way that, from your perspective, you think it could be improved?

Professor Thomas: I think the primary reason that these individuals come to this country is for academic development and therefore you have to look at what will be a reasonable number of hours' worth of work to do if you are reading for a PhD or you are doing an MA. It seems to me that 20 hours is a reasonable amount for that reason alone, not necessarily because it is arbitrarily set there but if someone was doing 40 hours work a week, how in the world do they have the time to do a PhD? When I did my doctorate, it occupied every hour of my working day, and I certainly couldn't have done an additional 20 hours' worth of work. So it seems if a figure is going to be set that 20 hours is a reasonable figure to be set against the background of what is in the best interests of the individual pursuing that academic activity.

Q34   Chair: The other side of the coin: do you think you could lose potentially talented people in business as a result of it?

Neil Carberry: I think our support for the 20-hour limit is based on the fact that if we are letting people into the country to study and they want to earn a little more money to improve their standard of living then that kind of opportunism should be encouraged. Certainly, there are parts of business where long-term employee relationships do start with very limited periods of work on the frontline, particularly in retail. Therefore, some of those relationships may be fostered while doing less than 20 hours a week. One of the key pieces of feedback we had from our members at the time of the consultation, though, was that students who want to work a package of five or 10 hours a week are quite useful in some parts of the country with relatively tight labour markets, even at the moment, because they are willing to do shifts that are very difficult to recruit for.

Q35   Mr Ward: Was it not also, in this stage of deregulation, an issue for employers about the whole bureaucracy of record keeping and reporting on the hours?

Neil Carberry: We have always had an hours limit, and I think the systems are relatively well set up for that. Largely for the reasons that the professor has set out, you want to have a limit because if someone is working for one of my members for 35 hours a week then you would legitimately ask questions about the course that they are doing at their educational institution.

Mr Ward: Unless they were a really good employee and you didn't want to lose them.

Neil Carberry: Twenty hours a week seems to us to strike the right balance. What we were pleased with was that the Government moved back from its proposals to try and regulate that further. Clearly, when they were talking about just doing on campus work or only allowing work at weekends, that would have been a significant burden, very messy, and I don't know about you, but certainly when I was a student weekends were something that happened to other people. My work week focused on the two points at which I had to deliver work to my extremely demanding tutor.

Q36   Chair: It is not unique to students; politicians have the same problem. Can I move on to the issue of standards of English? Obviously, you will have noted in the Minister's statement on Tuesday, the announcement, that higher levels of English will be required from visa applicants. A number of issues were raised on the Floor of the House in that context and I would welcome your perspective on how these changes could impact on the successful applicants and the implications for your respective professions.

Professor Thomas: We are quite content with B2 for undergraduate degrees. We think that is a reasonable position. There is an exception made: the classic story of the mathematician, the brilliant mathematician who can't speak English very well but isn't going to have to use it and therefore will be able to come, because they don't speak English in mathematics apparently—I'm not sure. Our anxiety was setting B2 for pre-university courses, because that would have had very significant impact and 40% of undergraduates from overseas coming to British universities come through a pre-university course. So, setting it at B1, certainly we were pleased that the Government did that and understand the need that they will still have to be at B2 when they enter the undergraduate degree. There had been a suggestion of B2 for the pre-university courses and that would have had a major impact. Setting it at B1 solves a significant amount of that.

Neil Carberry: I agree with most of that. I think we are very comfortable with the standards as they are set out now. Clearly, employers in the UK tend to like employees to be able to speak English and the B2 standard is, we feel, the right one where it has been set. I think the one concern we would have, and it comes back to the discussion we had earlier, is about when that assessment is made and how that assessment is made. We are fundamentally uncomfortable with a B2 assessment being done on the basis of a chat at Heathrow. I think there has to be due process for people to show that they have B2, have the certification and for that to be trusted through the system.

Q37   Chair: You have partially pre-empted my next question. My understanding is that universities will be afforded a level of discretion, basically, on assessing the applicant's command. First of all, from the universities' perspective, how is that going to be done and will it be potentially challengeable by the UK Border Agency? If all of this is the case, how will those disagreements be resolved? I will start with yourself and then go on to your perspective.

Professor Thomas: The answer is I am sure it will be challengeable by the UK Border Agency, but if we can go back to basics again, we don't want to admit people to our degrees who are having major difficulties with English. What that does is just create a huge workload for us in terms of having to supervise the students, having to take the students on the journey through to their degree. Let me be quite clear: it is in our interests to ensure that there is good facility with English for the students coming to our universities. So we are already set up quite well to check on the English capabilities of our students.

Q38   Chair: You already have a process in place to make that assessment?

Professor Thomas: We have a process in place, absolutely. As I say, we don't want to admit people whose English is poor and therefore we will be able to continue with that, and I think it will be part of the highly trusted status that that is left to us to do. But I have no doubt that there will be monitoring of that by the UK Border Agency, and that if they feel we are not doing that appropriately, I am sure it will be challengeable. It is our duty to do that properly.

Q39   Chair: In a moment, I will bring in Paul Blomfield, but basically should business be able to make the same assessment? From what you said earlier, I get the impression that you haven't really thought through what business could do to make this assessment. Is that correct? What would you suggest?

Neil Carberry: No. Within skilled tiers, in particularly Tier 2, there is already a testing framework in place that businesses comply with. We also have a similar process for certain scientific people coming in—for instance, from the major Japanese car manufacturers who are coming to live in the UK for a period with an interpreter standing next to them because they are extremely well paid. What they are doing is giving technical input into the production of a new car in the UK. So both those tracks are already in place in Tier 2.

Q40   Paul Blomfield: To follow up on this issue, I thought Professor Thomas very fully described the robust system that is already in place for university assessment of proficiency in English. There does appear to be, within the Home Secretary's statement, a residual discretion for UKBA officials at point of entry to make their own decision about proficiency. Do you think that those officials are adequately trained to make those sorts of decision in relation to university courses?

  Professor Thomas: The answer to that question is I don't know. I have been invited to the frontline in September at Heathrow personally to sit with these officials and see when the wave of students come through. They do provide quite significant anecdotal tales that tend to make your hair curl a little bit of when they ask somebody which university they are going to and they are not capable of answering that, or which course they are going to and they are not capable of answering that, and then when you open the luggage, there are builder's tools in it. The UK Border Agency has a number of anecdotes of apparently going to quite well established universities. So one must take that at face value. I can't see how we can't allow a decision in those circumstances to be made by an official on the frontline. But you would have to ask the UK Border Agency about the level of training that they have, because I don't know.

Q41   Chair: We are coming to the conclusion of our questions but just a couple of final ones. Obviously you have been fairly positive about the changes that have been announced, but certainly from our visit to China, and other anecdotal evidence there does seem to be a perception abroad, arising from the previous visa regime, that Britain is no longer open for business. What do you think the Government can do to change that?

Professor Thomas: Well, it can shout from the very rooftops that we are open for business. I can tell you that the overseas applications to the University of Bristol this year have never been as high as they are. So if the message out there is that we are not open for business, people aren't listening to that message; they are applying to come to our university. Let's be quite clear about that.

  Certainly ,the Minister made the "open for business" very, very, very plain when he spoke at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago. The President of Universities UK has been saying that whenever they go abroad. We have to get some clear messages out that overseas student fees are not affected by changes to home undergraduate fees, which is a misperception that overseas students thought that they were having their fees trebled.

There is a very interesting analysis by a think tank in Boston of the quite precipitate drop in overseas applications to Australia that caused real problems in Australian universities, and their analysis was that society goes through kind of migration positive-migration negative cycles and that the overseas student applications pick up that a society is in a migration negative mode, and that is the most off-putting thing for them—the sense that that society at the time is not positive about migration. So there needs to be a series of things that say, "Yes, we do want highly skilled; we do want the very best coming to the United Kingdom" and that needs to be at ministerial level and in publications, and universities need to also say that quite clearly.

Neil Carberry: That message goes for the whole of the business community as well. The key thing is to make the very reasonable goal of having a balanced migration strategy that takes account of both economic and social issues, to deliver a message around the world that if you want to come to Britain to invest, if you want to partner with a UK university, if you want to set up a head office here, that you can do that, that you will not be held back from bringing in the 15 or 20 people you need to run an operation of 200 or 250 people.

  I think that means that everything that the Government does—be it asking the Migration Advisory Committee about Tier 2 limits, be it about the message that the Prime Minister gives when he speaks on the subject—has to make clear how and by which means the policy is supporting the goals the Chancellor set out yesterday in terms of boosting UK economic growth.

Q42   Chair: A final question to you, Mr Carberry. We have had previous evidence, in our case from Airbus and I believe that there was also a debate in the House of Lords that quoted Google, about British companies having difficulties with UKBA in processing visas. Is this untypical, or would you agree it is a problem and do you think it is still going to be a problem?

Neil Carberry: I will refer you back to the discussion we had earlier. I think the problem was much more substantial 18 months to two years ago. It is still the case that the system is slower than many international businesses would like it to be and that they feel it ought to be given the amount of investment they are now putting behind getting their applications right, and in terms of some of these global companies, such as the two you mentioned, clearly getting people into the UK to do work that is good for the broader economy quickly is beneficial for us all.

Chair: Thank you. That concludes our questioning. Can I thank you once again for attending? We will now be interviewing one of the Ministers, and you will no doubt see the outcome of our deliberations in due course. Good luck, gentlemen.


 
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