Anthony Kershaw – 1978 Speech on Overseas Students

Below is the text of the speech made by Anthony Kershaw, the then Conservative MP for Stroud, in the House of Commons on 13 March 1978.

I wish to call the attention of the House to the treatment which overseas students in this country are receiving. I shall argue that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards them is unjust, even illegal, and that the consequences are hurtful to the students and harmful to the interests of the United Kingdom.

In fact, it is difficult to know what the policy of Her Majesty’s Government is, because they have not at any time spelt out the basis of their approach. In 1976, the Secretary of State announced various increases in fees, the result of which is that overseas undergraduates pay £650 compared with £500 for home students, and graduates £850 compared with £750 for home graduates.

However, in November 1976 the Secretary of State said that it was her intention, in due course, to remove the fee differential. Even if this is a rather a hollow promise, because fee levels effectively apply almost solely to overseas students since the vast majority of home students have their fees paid by public funds, nothing has yet been done towards fulfilling that promise. The Minister of State last July was only able to say that increases for the coming year would be made to take account of inflation.

We have had inspired Press leaks which indicate that future policy will be towards positive discrimination in which rich students from richer countries will be charged very much higher fees, calculated to produce £120 million in a year, which will be used to subsidise poor students from poorer countries. I ask how it will be possible to determine the real income of students, how it will be possible to make it compatible with the free entry to universities of students other than those nominated by their home Governments. That is something I cannot understand.

How are the countries to be nominated? As someone pertinently asked, are we now to refuse education investment into the United Kingdom from the ​ United States in projects such as those from the Brookings Institute?

How do we stand with regard to the EEC? Are we to continue to charge high fees and to keep on raising them against other countries—against countries such as Germany and France, who receive a far larger number of British students than we take from them and who charge nothing or almost nothing? If those countries retaliate, what will be the effect on our students wishing to go abroad? Has that been considered?

Is the conduct of the Government in this regard compatible with membership of the EEC? The only thing that the Government have done to mitigate hardship is to replace the widely used overseas students fees award scheme with the fee support schemes for postgraduates only. This has proved totally inadequate. The burden of easing hardship has been shuffled off on to local authorities, who are inappropriate for the job, and upon universities and polytechnics, who have struggled to help but without the slightest assistance from Government, except the so-called £1 million divided between universities and the State sector, which was not additional real money but was what would otherwise have been cut. What is certain is that the Government wish to limit the number of overseas students.

The public expenditure White Paper of January 1978 shows the decline in the number of overseas students anticipated, from 52,000 this year to 44,000 in 1981–82, in higher educational establishments, and from 28,000 to 22,000 in non-advanced institutions. Why have these figures not been made public by the Department responsible and justified by argument? Why do we learn of them from a Treasury table? I shall tell the Minister why this is so. These instructions about quotas come from the notorious and largely incomprehensible Circular 8/77. This circular not only imposes quotas but authorises differential tuition fees, local education hostel charges and admission charges. It encourages reclassification of certain categories of immigrant students so that they may be charged higher fees. The circular apparently includes in the quota students who are wholly paid for by their own Government, imposing no charges ​ on the British taxpayer and bringing in investment earnings.

For example, 1,500 Nigerian students are due here in September, bringing in £7 million a year. But they are to be part of the quota, apparently, a quota presumably designed to limit our costs. In fact, they are a profit.

The reason why the Department of Education and Science will not explain its circular and give guidance to LEAs and others is that, paradoxically, it acts not in the name of common sense but for fear of offending against the Government’s Race Relations Act, which was designed to prevent, not promote, discrimination.

I call upon Her Majesty’s Government, who so recently worked themselves up into a phoney lather about immigration and race, to withdraw Circular 8/77, which I say is morally and legally offensive. There sit the racists tonight—in the Department of Education and Science.

The harassment of overseas students is becoming a scandal. Their hours of attendance are checked. They are forbidden to apply for continuation courses until their examination results are through, by which time they may well be too late to apply for the next course.

The Inner London Education Authority, that creature of this Government, fined two London polytechnics £50,000 for accidentally exceeding their quota of overseas students, though I understand that one has now been let off paying that amount. Referring to this shameful incident and to the whole matter, The Times Higher Education Supplement wrote:

“Either they’

—that is, the polytechnics—

“must work an unworkable racist quota, and thus perhaps fall foul of the law. Or they can refuse to work it and be fined.”

In short, overseas students in this country are being treated not as honoured guests but shabbily, as if every one of them was a potential illegal immigrant. This curmudgeonly attitude is directly contrary to the short-term and long-term interests of the United Kingdom.

In the long term, the kind of reception and treatment which students receive here will have an important influence on those who, in later years, will be prominent in the counsels of their countries. Our industrial, cultural and political influence in ​ the world will to some extent depend upon what they have thought of us.

In the short term, the Treasury calculations of the costs of overseas students are manifest nonsense. These calculations appear to take no account of the money which students spend while they are here. The calculations depend upon the total costs of an institution being divided by the number of students to give a cost per head, ignoring that the buildings, the professors and the other overheads would still be there even if not one overseas student came. It is very arguable that, far from there being an expense, there is a net profit from overseas students.

Certainly, the calculations take no account whatever of the academic value to us, especially of post-graduates. Great institutions such as the London School of Economics would be lamed and crippled if their numbers of foreign students were drastically curtailed. It is not only a matter of academic benefits. The material benefits of post-graduate research can be demonstrated to have brought much benefit to us, notably, perhaps, in medicine.

No British student, so far as I have been able to ascertain, has been excluded from a course by too many foreigners. On the contrary—many courses from which British students take benefit could not be kept going without the foreign entry. But even if it were to happen that British students replaced foreign ones, that would bring not savings but extra expense, for we should be substituting subsidised British for fee-paying foreigners. The Government’s argument is economic nonsense, founded upon a false premise and wholly against the interests of this country.

What is to be done? The first thing is to decide who in the end is responsible for policy. At least eight Departments, starting with the Department of Education and Science, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Overseas Development and the Home Office, have different and conflicting interests and responsibilities in this matter. Someone must be found to take overall charge if the drift is to be stopped.

It is natural to look to the Secretary of State for Education and Science to do this, but she has been a great disappointment. When she came to office she was ​ widely regarded as a person in whom people of differing opinions could place confidence. When she leaves office, as shortly she will, she will be remembered as the best receiver of delegations in the business. Everyone goes away satisfied, but after a bit everyone notices that nothing happens.

The Secretary of State gives the lie to the old saying

“There is no smoke without fire”.

With her, there is nothing but smoke. There is no fire of action, no flame of determination, and apparently no influence in the Cabinet. However, some Department must take the lead, whether the DES or another Department.

My second suggestion is that, as there are so many conflicting influences, a commission of all those professional, academic and voluntary bodies directly interested, perhaps with the right to summon civil servants, should be set up to give advice. Such a body would provide a focal point where the interests of the universities, of educationists generally and perhaps also of this House and of the Government Departments concerned could be thrashed out. The Minister would benefit as a result.

Certain it is that at present Government policy is obscure, unfair and contrary to the interests of this country.