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5th Aug 2014

UK introduces tougher immigration rules for universities and colleges

The British government has announced tighter controls on institutions that sponsor international students to study in the UK. Under the current rules, universities and colleges can maintain their Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status if 20% or fewer of the students they recruit are refused student visas by the Home Office. Prime Minister David Cameron announced that, as of November 2014, that threshold will drop to 10% “after a three-month grace period for colleges and universities to re-examine and improve their admissions procedures.” From November on, if the Home Office rejects one in ten (or more) of the visa applicants recruited by a given institution, that institution will lose its licence to sponsor new Tier 4 students. “We will always act when we see abuse of our immigration system. And that is why we are tightening the rules to cut out abuse in the student visa system,” said British Home Secretary Theresa May. “These reforms are helping to deliver what we have always promised - to build an immigration system that truly works in the national interest.” A Home Office press release adds that, “The change will ensure all institutions are playing their part in administering immigration rules to enjoy the benefits of bringing in foreign students.”

Ongoing immigration controls

The new 10% threshold was announced on 29 July just as a number of the provisions of the British government’s new immigration legislation were coming into force. The policy is part of an ongoing Home Office crackdown on immigration and visa fraud, and comes only weeks after the British government suspended the licences of nearly 60 UK institutions over concerns around the credibility and qualifications of the foreign students they were recruiting. Writing in The Telegraph last week, Prime Minister Cameron said, “This Government has a long-term economic plan to secure a better future for Britain – and controlling immigration is a vital part of it. While [in recent years] we had the highest rates of migration in our modern history, we also had well over five million people of working age on out-of-work benefits. Over the past four years, we have been single-mindedly turning this around. Our goal is clear: an immigration system that puts Britain first. Achieving that means… clamping down on abuses. Some of the most egregious examples were those new arrivals claiming to be students, enrolling at bogus colleges.” The Prime Minister’s statement reflects the heightened scrutiny and oversight that has characterised the UK student visa system in recent years. This arises from the 2011 changes to the UK system that conferred Highly Trusted Sponsor status – but also a range of monitoring and reporting responsibilities – on approved UK institutions. The official Home Office guidance for Tier 4 sponsors sets out the basic premise of the sponsorship system as follows: “Sponsorship is based on two basic principles:

  • those who benefit most directly from migration (employers, education providers or other bodies that bring in migrants) help to prevent the system being abused; and
  • those applying to come to the UK to work or study are eligible to do so and a reputable employer or education provider genuinely wishes to take them on.

Before someone can apply to come to, or stay in the UK to study under Tier 4 of the points-based system, they must have a sponsor. The sponsor is an education provider that offers courses of study within the UK and has a licence to sponsor students so they can take those courses. Sponsorship provides evidence that the student will study for an approved qualification; and places duties on the sponsor that it must abide by.”

Colleges at risk

Critics charge, however, that the system places an undue burden on British institutions, and that it contributes to a growing sense that the UK is not a welcoming destination for foreign students. The new 10% visa rejection threshold is a case in point, and peak industry bodies in the UK have been quick to question its appropriateness and likely effectiveness. The Telegraph quotes a Universities UK spokesman who said, “It is important to note that a student visa refusal does not always equate to a deliberate attempt to abuse the immigration rules. It can relate to a genuine mistake by the applicant in failing to provide the precise documentation, such as the correct bank statement, required by the Home Office. Using visa refusal rates as a measure to determine the future of a sponsor’s Highly Trusted Sponsor status is a blunt mechanism and could also have a disproportionate impact on smaller institutions.” Study UK Association Manager Alex Proudfoot echoes the point in his association’s response to the new 10% threshold. "The Home Office has many tools at its disposal to tackle suspected abuse or non-compliance in the student visa system,” he said. “And the visa refusal rate was already the bluntest and least fit for purpose. There are a host of factors that can affect a sponsor's refusal rate, and very few which are within their control. The visa decision-making process is far from perfect, and errors by entry clearance officers are common but can be stubbornly hard to correct. Subjective assessments are made of a student's 'credibility' at interview, with questionable conclusions reached daily which cannot be appealed. Simple mistakes are made frequently by prospective students themselves, despite the best efforts of institutions. This change will hit smaller providers the hardest, including further education and sixth form colleges, language schools, and specialist institutions which attract students from across the world through word of mouth alone. They do not have the sheer volume of student numbers to absorb any unexpected spike in refusals.” Martin Doel, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, adds: “Entry clearance officers are often unfamiliar with further education colleges and the types of courses they offer. This means people hoping to study at a [Further Education] college are sometimes refused entry to the UK… We are concerned that reducing the proportion of applicants who can be refused a visa to 10%, which can trigger the loss of highly trusted status, might detrimentally affect colleges more than universities, not because they don’t take the care to ensure students are genuine, but because the system is unfairly structured and there is a lack of understanding from entry clearance officers.” There is a larger issue at play here as well and that is whether or not international students should be factored in the British government’s calculation of net migration targets in the first place. "It is notable that this latest crackdown has not been matched by a sensible liberalisation – like removing genuine students from the net migration target, which has been called for by half a dozen cross-party select committees,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. More broadly, the British government’s determination to impose new immigration controls raises important questions about the competitiveness of international education in the UK, a major export sector that is notable not only for its economic impact as one of the world’s leading study destinations, but also as an important actor in encouraging international linkages and exchanges. As we reported earlier this year, British universities recorded their first decline in international enrolment in nearly 30 years in 2012/13. It will be interesting to see how admissions numbers will trend over the longer term.

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