Keith Vaz: Government Is 'Afraid' Of International Students

Keith Vaz at Manchester Central, during the Labour Party Annual Conference.
Keith Vaz at Manchester Central, during the Labour Party Annual Conference.
Peter Byrne/PA Wire

The government - and not the public - is "afraid" of international students, while the current policy on student visas is causing "terrible damage", according to Keith Vaz MP.

Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, the home affairs select committee chairman and Labour Party politician once urged the government to include overseas students in net migration figures, rather than treating them as immigrants.

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Last week, Vaz co-hosted a debate on the issue of student visas to help form the committee's report, which will be published prior to the 2015 general election.

Despite the committee's 2011 recommendations warning the government against introducing new immigration measures, as they would deter international students, they still remain defined as migrants.

"We need to make sure we retain our position in the world as the best place to study," Vaz says. "We need a fair and robust management system."

Vaz says it is clear there are abuses of the system, but the hundreds of thousands who enter the UK to pursue their education "need defending".

"Students are not migrants. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (BIS), the Public Accounts Committee, and the Science and Technology Committee all agree with us.

"The government is split between the Department of BIS and Vince Cable, who advocate more international students to come and study here, and the Home Office, which advocates for fewer students to come over.

"It will say it doesn't, it wants to see the brightest and the best, but actually, if you get the best and the brightest, what happens to those who aren't? Don’t we want to educate them to make them the best and the brightest?

"It’s a phrase that I find difficult and I want to stop using it. We do need the best and the brightest if we want to win a Nobel Prize, but not everyone is going to win a Nobel Prize."

The Yemen-born politician added the debate needed to include those responsible for implementing the government's policies, as well as business leaders.

"I think it is important that parliament should come out of the Westminster Village and engage fully with stakeholders. These are the people who have to implement the policies they are making."

A recent study found there had been a "significant drop" in the number of international students coming to study in the UK, with the decline being the first in nearly three decades.

"There is really only one department of government holding us all up," Vaz explains. "And that's the Home Office.

"The Prime Minister is very, very clear; the first thing he says to international students is to come and study in Britain. And as a direct result of his and George Osborne's visits, Chinese students are now applying in huge numbers."

However, the same cannot be said of Indian students; between 2010 and 2013, the number of postgraduates from India and Pakistan halved.

Vaz attributes the problem to Cameron ignoring India, and failing to tell the country's students to come and study in the UK - as well as the damage caused by the London Metropolitan University (LMU) debacle.

"The way the home office dealt with LMU caused terrible damage. You don't just go in there and start suspending licences when you've got real people who are studying. A massive disruption was caused and irreparable damage to the reputation of the university - as well as the UK."

Despite LMU taking the government to court and winning its case, "the damage was already done".

According to Vaz, the public "loves" to read negative stories about immigration, but international students are not a concern.

"The public are not afraid of international students. It’s section of the government that are afraid of them.

"International students are not taking up jobs, there is no empirical evidence showing students get jobs while they are here. The vast majority, if they can afford fees, which are enormous, can afford to look after themselves."

Speaking at last week's student visa debate, James Brokenshire MP, minister for security and immigration, said it was right countries continued to include students as migrants.

"All immigrants have an impact on infrastructure, housing, employment, and this include students. Our targeted reforms are working and not deterring genuine students."