Immigration Bill: Unaccompanied Children and Universities

Should the UK do more for unaccompanied children?  The Immigration Bill is currently in ‘Ping Pong’ stage, where the most important issue today is whether the country should accept more unaccompanied children.  There is also a higher education aspect to this, clearly minor compared to the main issue, but still important.

After the Bill had originally been published, the Government let it be known that they wanted to include an amendment to prevent unaccompanied children having ‘their entire university education paid for by the taxpayer’.  The problem is this.  Unaccompanied children may often fall foul of the rules of the higher education student support regime; some do not meet the criteria for support and so are assessed as needing to pay international fees and not be supported by loans.  It has been established by the Courts that councils who are caring for these children should be paying their fees at university; at full international rate.

This was announced in the Sunday Times with support from David Simmonds of the LGA (but also, importantly of Hillingdon Borough – the home of Heathrow) who said:

“You get a lot of people from war zones who are [children] of highly educated middle-class people”

Whether these children are the offspring of highly educated or middle-class people or not, they are unaccompanied children.  Councils such as Hillingdon or Kent bear a disproportional cost because they are looking after more unaccompanied children as that is where they arrive (although the Bill also has clauses to ‘disperse’ them to other councils).   The Government’s impact assessment does not say how many people are in this situation, given how under-represented care leavers are in HE – it’s probably very small.  but it does note the maximum fee they might pay (say £30k pa for a clinical medicine course).

The Government wants to simply remove the need for Councils to pay the international fees.  But surely that would leave these children, on leaving care, with an impossible task if they wanted to go to university.  If ineligible for the student support regime, they would need to find the full international fee, plus fund their own maintenance or, the government suggests, wait to become eligible. This seems very unlikely in the first instance, and perverse in the second.  (Clearly the Government must avoid a loophole whereby overseas nationals can suddenly abandon and their children, say after putting them through fee-paying education, but that wouldn’t be complex to do)

Thankfully Helena Kennedy raised this issue in the Lords, bringing forward an amendment which would place these unaccompanied children leaving care into a category that would make them eligible for home fees and student support.  Therefore they could take out loans to pay those fees, remove the burden from the Councils and sort out the situation.  The unaccompanied child, now a student, would be supported.  As a graduate, they would pay back their loan – wherever they were, just like everyone else.  At report stage in the Lords this was left, the amendment withdrawn, with the prospect that BIS would meet Baroness Kennedy about the issue.

Clearly there are crucial issues within the Immigration Bill, and I’m not surprised that this has not got a lot of parliamentary time.  I also think there’s a really simple solution for the government here with a bit of nifty drafting of regulations which would enable unaccompanied children on leaving care to take up a place in higher education.   I’m hoping that we do not end up with a situation where we care for these children but when they turn 18 we cut them off from our higher education system.  Hopefully a solution is already in hand.

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