Immigration Minister Des Browne argues that a 'robust and fair' system requires a 'realistic' level of fee
As Immigration Minister, I am well aware of the opportunities of globalisation. Some headlines focus on its perceived downsides. But the fact that the UK is rightly seen as among the best places in the world for educational and cultural opportunities presents us with a particularly positive opportunity.
I suspect some readers will think the Home Office does not much care for international students, that we want to deter them from coming to the UK. If they think that, they are completely wrong.
The Government wants international students at our universities and colleges. They bring huge intellectual, cultural and economic benefits to the UK. Their presence makes a vital contribution to our research base, enriches the academic experience for all students and contributes £5 billion a year to our economy.
So why if we support an increase in the number of foreign students are we increasing their visa fees? It is not as simple as that. The initial application charge for a student visa is just £36. For those students who complete their course and go home at the end of their agreed time, this is the only immigration fee paid. But we are raising the fees to £250 for those who seek to extend their visas or to £500 if they apply in person.
This is an important distinction to make. By not doing so, we risk creating a false impression among overseas students and accidentally deterring them from applying to study here.
Universities have accepted the principle of recovering part of their costs by charging students for tuition.
There is no reason why the same logic should not be applied to the Immigration Service.
In principle, it is right that those who benefit from the service pay for it. The increase in cost for visa extensions is designed to cover the expense of an appeal service for those whose applications fail and it will enable us to improve service to all student applicants.
Presently, 70 per cent who apply by post for an extension receive a reply within 15 days of receipt.
We should also keep these increases in proper perspective. Compared with an average of £13,000 a year for living expenses and tuition fees, Pounds 250 is a fraction of a student's costs. It is argued that increases will deter applicants, but evidence does not support this; demand for student visas remains strong. There has been a 37 per cent increase in 2004 compared with the year before.
The Prime Minister set a target of attracting an extra 50,000 students into higher education by 2005. Already, we have exceeded that target.
Given the advantages of studying in the UK, I do not believe increasing the cost of a visa extension is a significant consideration for students. I accept that we need constantly to improve our service. Part of that is to ensure that we root out any applicants seeking to abuse the system. In addition, we are ensuring that our immigration system is explained fully to applicants so that all of their paperwork is in order and we are improving the quality of initial decisions. By so doing, students are increasingly being given visas that cover the full length of their courses, thus avoiding the need for unnecessary extensions.
There were concerns about the numbers of Chinese refusals but improvements in the quality of initial applications has stabilised the rate. We want to encourage closer co-operation with China. That is why the Chancellor announced that a youth exchange scheme is being established to further cultural understanding between our two countries.
While the Government is doing all it can to encourage overseas students, educational establishments also have an important role to play.
They must ensure that prospective applicants are given all the information and support they need.
I am keen to work with universities and colleges to ensure that we do not lose overseas students. We will achieve that objective only by ensuring that the UK remains an attractive study destination.
The Government, educational institutions and international students have a common interest in making their partnership work. However, as Immigration Minister, I also have a responsibility to students and to the rest of the country to ensure that we have a migration system that is robust and fair to all.
As a result of recent decisions I have made, including the decision to set realistic fees, I think that I have struck the right balance.
Des Browne is Immigration Minister.