A funny sort of welcome

Complex new visa and immigration regulations are in danger of sending out the wrong message to foreign students and academics, reports Melanie Newman

October 29, 2009

It may all depend on your point of view. "Simple and accessible ... objective, easy to follow and working well" is how a senior UK Border Agency (UKBA) representative describes the new visa and immigration requirements for overseas students and academics. However, many of the institutions wrestling with implementation of the rules counter that they are "Kafkaesque", riddled with errors and inconsistencies, "a Gordian knot", "bureaucratic nonsense" and a looming danger to scholarly exchanges. They say the regulations threaten the British higher education sector's international recruitment aims and, ultimately, its bottom line.

And if you are considering the requirements from the viewpoint of a young Chinese "leader of the future" hoping to train at a UK business school, the red tape that you encounter - including a 47-page application form that asks for details of your support for terrorism - may make studying in Britain a distinctly unappealing option.

Manchester Metropolitan University's Business School, which runs a management training programme for "leaders of the future" from China, has discovered how challenging it can be to negotiate the demands of the new system. The course, which has been running for two years, is funded by the European Union delegation to Beijing and is supported by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. It earns the university substantial income and boosts UK-China relations. A key part of the course is an unpaid internship in an EU country. But under new immigration rules, any participant in the course planning on an internship in the UK needs a Tier 5 (temporary work) visa. And under the points-based immigration system, applicants for these visas need "overarching UK government department support".

Chris Thomas, principal lecturer in international business development at Manchester Metropolitan, says that UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) initially refused to support the programme, claiming that the new regulations "were too onerous". He does not blame the department. "Whichever ministry provides the support has to vouch for the behaviour of all the interns - and it knows nothing about them," he says.

Fortunately, he says, "the Gordian knot was cut by the EU Ambassador to Beijing intervening personally with the UK Ambassador, leading to the chief executive of UK Trade and Investment writing to the head of the UK Border Agency to confirm support". The programme was saved but, as Thomas points out, applicants to less high-profile courses offering UK internships may not be so lucky, despite the UKBA's insistence that support will always be given for legitimate programmes.

"It's ridiculous," Thomas exclaims. "The people coming have already gone through the vetting procedure to get their student visas - why can't we, the university, vouch for them as happens in every other country in Europe" During the uncertain period before UKTI confirmed its support, Chinese applicants to the programme asked Thomas whether Britain really wanted them. "These are future leaders in China who everybody else is busy courting," he says. "What sort of message are we sending out?" He has no doubt that the new rules will put Britain at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of Europe.

As well as demonstrating that they have government sponsorship and sufficient funds to support themselves while in the UK, Chinese participants in the Manchester Metropolitan programme will have to go through what Thomas calls "a lot of bureaucratic nonsense". They will have to fill in the complex 47-page application form, which includes eight questions relating to the applicant's involvement in terrorist activity, such as "has the applicant ever, by any means or medium, expressed views that justify or glorify terrorist violence?"

Security concerns and fears that extremists and economic migrants had been gaining entry to the UK by registering as students at bogus educational establishments were among the reasons for the introduction of the points-based system, which came into force for non-EU staff and students this year. In the words of Jeremy Oppenheim, the UKBA's national head of temporary migration: "We make no apology for introducing stricter rules and carrying out tougher checks, which are crucial to stopping abuses of the system and protecting those genuine students wanting to study in the UK."

Universities, however, fear that the process may deter genuine students and talented staff. While online applications should speed up the process, institutions will have to monitor staff and students to a far greater extent and store far more information about them, with a concomitant increase in bureaucracy. In the words of one disgruntled academic, the change has "moved responsibility for immigration from the Home Office and the UK Border Agency to universities".

Delays, unreasonable refusal of applications and inconsistent interpretation of the rules by officials working overseas top the list of complaints from the sector. On 6 October, The Guardian reported that 14,000 visa applications from Pakistan, including many from students, were awaiting processing in the UKBA's office in Abu Dhabi. A columnist for Dawn, Pakistan's most widely read English-language newspaper, said treating the applicants in this way "reinforces negative sentiments about Western countries being anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani".

Managers at the University of Leeds have been tracking overseas students' visa rejections. Some rejections are clearly ludicrous: one applicant was turned down because the student had written "Malaysia" rather than "Malaysian" under nationality. Another was refused a visa because she hadn't provided her A-level certificates. "Curiously, the certificates were returned to her with her visa refusal notice," a Leeds spokesman says.

"In addition to specific issues about visa rejection and refusals, students have been issued with visas for a duration that does not correspond with course dates," he adds. Students either have to extend their visa to complete their course or obtain leave to remain beyond graduation. Both of these options have implications for the university, which is required to monitor their attendance.

Such cases may be the result of teething problems that will ease as time passes. But according to Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), the system has become "Kafkaesque". Obtaining a visa is only part of a long, complicated process: students must first obtain an academic offer, and then apply to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for a security clearance certificate. Only then can they apply to the High Commission for a visa. Requirements for biometric information mean that the student must travel to a regional centre, which may be hundreds of miles from his or her home. Extension of the visa requires resubmission of biometrics. "The system has multiple steps involving multiple agencies and it is not surprising that when promoting it in television and press ads, the UKBA used the metaphor of hurdles and a race," says Scott.

Despite years of representations from UKCISA, Universities UK and others, the UKBA has confirmed that if a student applies for a visa and then wishes to move to another "sponsor" institution (for example, to take advantage of a more suitable course, to progress from a college to a university or to follow a PhD supervisor), he or she cannot start at the new institution before making, and receiving a decision on, a completely new immigration application.

"All the paperwork has to be done again, another fee of between £350 and £550 paid and, if done by post, there will be a six- to eight-week wait, by which time it may well be too late to start the new course," Scott says.

He concludes: "The Home Office has insisted on bringing in a system that is virtually identical for employees (Tiers 1 and 2) and students (Tier 4), but in a range of key areas it has fundamentally failed to acknowledge the differences between the two and the result is expensive, unwieldy and in many ways inappropriate."

University managers dealing with staff rather than student recruitment agree that the system is causing equally big headaches for them. Esther Meyerson, head of recruitment at King's College London, takes issue with another new requirement: to advertise every vacancy with Jobcentre Plus, as well as in the recognised printed or digital media, regardless of the level of academic expertise required.

"Even our top research jobs have to be advertised there, meaning we are flooded with applicants who do not have any academic background or any of the skills required for the post," she explains. "It is a huge and time-consuming burden sorting through applications that do not meet any of the criteria."

King's recently advertised for a senior administrator to manage collaborative partnerships with universities in Brazil, China and India. "The application process was clearly set out, detailing the relevant contact person and emphasising that CVs alone would not be accepted," Meyerson says. "Nevertheless, about a dozen applicants via Jobcentre Plus emailed a senior member of staff directly, attaching only their CV."

The UKBA said Jobcentre Plus was seeing a much greater number of highly skilled and experienced residents using its services to look for jobs and it "would be wrong for the Government to make assumptions about the sorts of jobs that these people are looking for".

Academics' notice periods also tend to be long and applicants often need to relocate their families, which takes time. "The system does not take this into account, as there is a specified period by which time the academic must take up the post once having received a work permit," Meyerson says. "Experience has shown that having selected a highly qualified applicant from outside the European Economic Area who fully meets the Labour Market Testing requirements, and then offered him or her a position, the person (is unable) to start within the tight time frame dictated by the points-based system."

As with student applicants, the Tier 1 visa application process for highly skilled workers requires academic applicants to meet a maintenance fund requirement. The academic must provide proof of funds totalling £2,800 for him or herself and £1,600 for each accompanying dependant. These amounts must have been held for a minimum period of three months immediately preceding the date the visa application is submitted and the balance must not fall below the required minimum at any time during the three-month period. This onerous requirement can catch out even relatively well-paid staff who do not keep all their funds in a single account, and is likely to be even more difficult for early career academics and researchers.

In February 2010, the UKBA's new "sponsorship management system", the IT system that universities must use to process applications online and which is currently in a voluntary trial phase, goes live. It will, say observers, inevitably unleash a whole new set of problems.

"To date there is very little information about how this system will operate, but it seems likely that universities will be subject to a significantly increased administrative and financial burden," one business school manager says. Meanwhile, negotiations with the UKBA on monitoring student attendance are continuing against a background of protest from the University and College Union. Some UCU branches have voted against co-operation with the process.

Not everyone in the sector is unhappy about the changes. INTO University Partnerships, a private provider of foundation and access courses to international students, said that less than 10 per cent of its student base had been affected by visa delays.

"The implementation of the most far-reaching changes to the British immigration process in the past 20 years has not been without its challenges," says Tim O'Brien, managing director for INTO's UK operations. "This, combined with record levels of demand, has caused difficulty for students from certain parts of the world, in particular China, Pakistan, Thailand and Japan. In other regions, sub-Saharan Africa for example, the introduction of Tier 4 guidelines has actually improved the student experience - taking guesswork out of the application process and replacing it with transparency."

He adds: "INTO is confident that the new visa system will eventually allow for faster processing of applications and benefit hundreds of thousands of international students who aspire to study and live in Britain."

Steve Smith, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, is equally sanguine. While acknowledging that "the first few months of its operation have not been smooth", he says: "The architecture of the new system is simpler than the previous complex and piecemeal arrangements. In the long term it should provide a more efficient and objective process for prospective international students."

If their optimism is misplaced, the damage to the UK's reputation could be significant. As a manager at the University of Nottingham said in a recent Association of Heads of University Administration briefing: "The risks are obvious ... I'd give the US example of what happened when they changed their visa regime - an immediate downturn, which hit some universities incredibly hard. It has taken five-plus years to repair the damage."

A UNIVERSITY'S STORY

Eight African scientists were invited to attend a workshop on mapping African fires by satellite, held at the University of Leicester on 7-8 September.

Although all were handpicked by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), four of the eight researchers fell foul of the new immigration laws and were forced to stay at home, including a leading South African ecologist who was to have given a talk at the workshop.

"All these would-be participants were highly regarded and held important posts in their countries of origin," says one of the Leicester academics involved in hosting the workshop.

"All had funding to cover their expenses. Each had a letter of invitation from the FAO proving that their reason for visa application was genuine. If bodies like the FAO are not considered good enough to vouch for the legitimacy of a scientific meeting, international co-operation will suffer.

"There needs to be more international communication, not less. Under the new visa regulations, workshops and meetings like this one are less likely to be held in the UK in future."

A PARENT'S STORY

One aggrieved mother, who asked not to be named and who works for the United Nations in Vienna, says her son was rejected when he applied for a UK visa before taking up a university place.

The UN makes a contribution to the university fees for the children of expat employees, and it issues a standard letter guaranteeing that the parent concerned will receive an education grant covering 75 per cent of the total cost, to a ceiling of £17,000. The mother, whose son's tuition fees and maintenance costs totalled some £13,000, provided the UN's letter to the visa office. She also provided bank statements showing that her son had cleared funds of EUR4,000 (£3,650) in his accounts.

An entry clearance officer in Warsaw rejected the application on the grounds that the documents provided did not demonstrate that he was in possession of the required funds. "If the clearance officers are rejecting official letters as valid proof, UN employees will stop sending their kids to the UK, as they have no other way to prove sponsorship," says the mother.

"We all get our educational entitlements well in time to pay the full fees and accommodation costs, but the UN finance offices cannot process and transfer the whole amount into our personal accounts on time for the funds to appear on bank statements to show the visa clearing officers."

Her son did eventually obtain his visa and flew to Britain with his mother on 4 October. "We were stopped by immigration because the system showed that the visa had been refused once before, and my son was detained for questioning," she says.

AN OFFICIAL'S STORY

Jeremy Oppenheim, national lead for temporary migration at the UKBA, said he "entirely refuted" the allegation that the new process is expensive, unwieldy and inappropriate.

"The process for bringing migrant workers to the UK is objective, easy to follow and working well," he says. "The new system for students is simple and accessible and has been developed in close consultation with the education sector, through regular meetings of the Joint Education Task Force and the various representative bodies for higher and further education.

"Prospective students wishing to study in the UK know exactly what they need to demonstrate to qualify for a student visa, and there is detailed guidance on our website dealing with all aspects of the process. Thousands of students have already applied without any problems."

He adds: "Far from making the application process more complicated, under Tier 4 students are assessed against transparent and objective points tests, demonstrating that they have a place on a course and sufficient funds to maintain themselves."

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