The UK Border Agency is planning to offer institutions a “premium” immigration service at a cost of £8,000 a year, despite fears that a “one- size-fits-all” fee could hurt smaller providers.
From July, institutions will be able to pay for the extra service, which will include providing institutions with a dedicated account manager.
Compliance with immigration rules has become a pressing priority for the sector since London Metropolitan University was stripped of its licence to sponsor international students in August last year.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said he expected the “big players” in the sector, such as universities, to pay for the service.
“Where it’s going to hurt is smaller players because it’s one size fits all,” he warned.
A small college with no more than 30 international students, for example, will have to pay the same amount as a large university that attracts thousands, Mr Scott said.
“The real concern is that this is a disproportionate additional cost for the smaller operators,” he said.
The UKBA already operates a premium service for organisations wanting to bring workers to the UK. Small sponsors are charged £8,000 a year and large sponsors £25,000.
Mr Scott also complained that the UKBA had promised dedicated account managers when it introduced the requirement in 2010 for universities to be a highly trusted sponsor in order to recruit overseas students, but that they had never materialised.
The UKBA is currently running a free-of-charge pilot of the premium service “to ensure that we deliver (wherever possible) what sponsors want and need”, according to a Home Office spokeswoman.
A senior member of staff at a UK university, who had taken part in the pilot but did not want to be identified, said she had mixed experiences during the trial.
“We have had a good account manager, who responded swiftly with useful guidance, but we have also had a poor account manager, who gave us incorrect advice which we had to challenge on the basis of the written policy guidance,” she said.
Universities would not need to ask as many questions if the policy guidance was “better written and more clearly explained” in the first place, she added.
As part of the pilot, universities are also allowed to see the UKBA’s estimation of the proportion of international students that have been accepted by the university but then subsequently rejected for a visa for other reasons - a crucial figure, as it must be below 20 per cent or an institution will lose its highly trusted status.
Mr Scott said this was “very useful” for institutions, although the anonymous pilot participant said that the UKBA’s figure had “not always been accurate”.
Ian Creagh, head of administration at King’s College London, said that having to pay for the premium service “sticks in the craw”.
Speaking at an event on Migration and Higher Education at the London School of Economics earlier this month, he added that losing the right to sponsor international students “would be just so, so cataclysmic” that the university would nonetheless “shell out the £8,000 tomorrow”.