Things are anything but dull at the UK Border Agency these days. In the wake of some of the most significant changes in immigration rules in the past decade, the debate continues in the UK this summer as the British government tries to reconcile its interest in attracting qualified students with a pledge to reduce net migration.
Business and academic leaders alike are calling on the government to reverse its position and exclude international students from official immigration statistics. In recent weeks, media reports have suggested that the government is prepared to do just that, and that this may lead in turn to a wider review of more restrictive student visa policies in the UK.
The Academy has repeatedly called for action to be taken to address the perception that the UK is ‘closed for business’ as regards a wide range of academic exchanges. In our most recent call – on Postgraduate Funding – the Academy drew attention to the damage that might occur to the supply of students from overseas, resulting from the government’s current student visa requirements. The government’s own risk assessment, undertaken last year, estimated that over four years the policy could cost the UK (in a worst-case scenario) £3.6 billion, including the loss of student tuition fees to universities and other direct, as well as indirect, financial costs.
So I repeat here the call the British Academy made earlier this month that the immigration policy for overseas university students should be changed – overseas university students must be removed from the net migration statistics. They are a separate and distinct category and should be recognised as such.
The political backdrop is critical to this discussion. The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that net migration to Britain remains at record-high levels of more than 250,000 per year, and the Cameron administration has promised to reduce that figure to below 100,000 by the time of the next election in 2015.
That commitment appears to be fueling a drive at the UKBA this year toward greater scrutiny of both visa applicants and sponsors in the UK. The agency has stepped up its inspections of British educational institutions for compliance with their sponsor duties under the new regulations.
Compulsory interviews to begin on Monday
In a further move to reduce abuse of the visa system, the UKBA will introduce compulsory interviews of visa applicants from selected “high risk” countries beginning this Monday, 30 July 2012.
This compulsory interview requirement arises from a pilot project earlier this year that saw 2,300 student-visa applicants from 47 countries interviewed at British posts abroad. The pilot found that 32% of those interviewed would have been denied visas based on questions of credibility – that is, based on concerns regarding the sincerity of the student’s study plans, financial means, or intention to return to their home country after their studies.
The changes taking effect on 30 July are expected to result in approximately 10,000 to 14,000 compulsory interviews this year – accounting for roughly 5% of those who apply to study in Britain from outside of Europe – and UKBA staff will now have new powers to refuse visas for any students whose credibility is in doubt.
The pilot interviews earlier this year found the highest incidence of credibility issues with applicants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nigeria, and the Philippines – and it is expected that the interviews will be targeted to applicants from those countries as a result.
Speaking to The Guardian, UK immigration minister Damian Green commented:
Under the current system UK Border Agency officers are unable to refuse some applications even if they have serious concerns over the credibility of the student. We are toughening up the system to keep out the fraudulent and unqualified while ensuring genuine students benefit from our country’s excellent education sector.
All of this is occurring as the UKBA is itself under greater scrutiny in recent months as visiting students across the UK are facing a significant backlog in visa processing that has led to months-long delays for those applying for post-study work visas.
The UKBA expects to catch up by end of summer, but in the meantime hundreds of affected students have signed a protest petition and the National Union of Students is characterising the situation as a “serious problem which puts at risk the ability of UK universities to attract overseas students.”