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UK Home Secretary signals a two-tiered visa system

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • In a recent speech, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced upcoming consultations on the UK’s student visa system
  • Ms Rudd indicated for the first time that visa processes for foreign students could be tied to the quality of the institutions to which they have applied – that is, applicants to top-ranked institutions may enjoy more streamlined processes while those applying to lower-ranked universities could face new restrictions
  • Critics charge that the underlying assumptions behind such a move are ill-founded and that international students have only a modest impact on net migration to the UK

The British government is considering further restrictions on student visas in line with its often-stated goal to reduce net migration to the UK. In a 4 October speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said that the government will shortly open consultations on student immigration policy.

She also set out a case for two-tiered visa system, where visa policy is linked to the quality of the programme or institution: “I’m passionately committed to making sure our world-leading institutions can attract the brightest and the best. But a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help.”

“So our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent … while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses…We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country.”

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd speaking at the Conservative Party Conference, 4 October 2016

Ms Rudd did not expand further on the characteristics of higher or lower-quality institutions. But her remarks follow on earlier comments from Nick Timothy, Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff, who suggested that post-graduation work rights should be constrained to those foreign students who attend the country’s top-ranked Russell Group universities. Indeed, the British government launched a pilot programme on 25 July offering streamlined visa processing, and extended post-study stays, for master’s students at four top-ranked universities.

The following guidance from the British Home Office sets out the parameters of the pilot:

If you are applying to study a Masters course for 13 months or less (excluding the duration of any pre-sessional course) at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University of Bath or Imperial College London, you are eligible to participate in the Tier 4 pilot. This includes if you are applying from both outside and inside the UK.

Participating in the pilot allows you to:

– stay longer after the end of the course – the total length of stay you are allowed is the full length of the course plus six months after the end of the course;

– submit fewer evidential documents with your application – you will not be required to submit certificates or documents showing your previous qualifications or transcript of results and documents showing you meet the maintenance requirements.

In a letter circulated to UK universities, the Home Office adds that the four pilot universities were “selected due to their consistently low level of visa refusals. The pilot is intentionally narrow in scope in order to monitor the pilot outcomes against the stated objectives and to minimise the risk of unintended consequences before considering rolling it out more widely.” The letter underscores as well that the goal of the pilot is to “test the benefits of a differentiated approach within Tier 4, whilst ensuring that any changes do not undermine the robust application of immigration requirements.”

Ready criticism

Speaking to The Guardian in the wake of the Home Secretary’s speech, Labour MP and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international students Paul Blomfield said, “I’m shocked by the Home Secretary’s comments, which are spectacularly ill-informed.”

“[She doesn’t seem to] appreciate the enormous contribution international students make to the universities and cities where they study…The only people cheering today’s announcement will be our competitors.”

The UK Council for International Student Affairs was also quick to fact-check the Home Secretary’s remarks. UKCISA offered corrections for a number of points in Ms Rudd’s Birmingham speech, including the following:

Ms Rudd: “The government will look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.”

UKCISA: The Home Office already requires all Tier 4 sponsors to be approved by the Quality Assurance Agency (or Independent Schools Inspectorate). Quality measures are therefore already in force.

Ms Rudd: “The current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying.”

UKCISA: Only 5000 international students out of 430,000 were able to meet the stringent tests to qualify last year.

Ms Rudd: “While an international student is studying here, their family members can do any form of work.”

UKCISA: Only those on postgraduate courses of at least 12 months (or government-sponsored students on courses of more than six months) are allowed to bring any dependants with them.

Ms Rudd: “And foreign students, even those studying English language degrees, don’t even have to be proficient in speaking English.”

UKCISA: All students, studying any subject, currently have to meet minimum English language levels, set by the Home Office, in reading, writing, listening and speaking.

“We are willing, once again, to present these facts and evidence to the government in any consultation but it is vitally important for the points to be recognised and understood,” added UKCISA Chief Executive Dominic Scott. “International students bring income, influence and employment to the UK. Limiting still further those who come – or the small number whose specialist skills are needed by British business and industry – will have minimal impact on levels of net migration but could cause real damage to reputation, to institutions and to local economies.”

Universities UK Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge also argued for a more inclusive approach in stating that, “The diversity of institutions and the range of high quality courses offered is one of the many strengths of our university sector. Any [quality criteria for institutions] must reflect that diversity. The criteria must also support the critical role that many universities play in their regions, where the impact of international students directly supports regional economies, supplies high level graduate skills, and ensures the sustainability of many courses at regional level.”

“Polling has shown that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. International students come to the UK, study for a period, and then the overwhelming majority go home after their studies.”

Finally, a related analysis from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argues that the British government is greatly overstating the numbers of non-EU students who remain in the country after their studies. The IPPR estimates that less than 40,000 non-EU migrants, who previously entered the UK as students, are still in the country after five years. This compares to government estimates of 90,000 students who remain, a figure which the IPPR concludes is not “not reliable enough to be used as a guide for policy.”

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