University and student groups are threatening to withdraw support from a government body set up to help students caught up in a visa crackdown after it failed to allow the sector certain key concessions.
Serious concerns have been expressed about the perceived lack of help provided for students by the Sponsorship Working Group. The group was set up by immigration minister James Brokenshire in June after he told three universities and 57 private colleges that they could not sponsor any new international students amid allegations that phoney English language qualifications had been used to gain entry to the UK.
Organisations including Universities UK, the UK Council for International Student Affairs and the National Union of Students are among the members of the working group, but it is run and chaired by UK Visas and Immigration.
Working group members asked UKVI to make concessions to assist “innocent” students who came to Britain in good faith but were affected by the Home Office action.
They suggested that anyone who was forced to repeat a year should be given an extension on their visa and that those who must move to a new college should be given more flexibility about the amount of savings they are required to hold.
Members also requested that institutions that took on students who had been forced to move on from affected colleges should not have their own visa sponsorship status threatened as a result.
But Times Higher Education has been shown a letter that refuses the requests. Mike Wells, UKVI’s chief operating officer, writes that it “would not be right for the Home Office to take a different approach to these cases”.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UKCISA, said that working group members would go back to the government with more evidence, warning that he understood that 6,000 students have been affected by the crackdown.
“There is little or no evidence that the vast majority of these [students] have done anything wrong,” said Mr Scott. “But if they are not given the assistance they need, it will be a huge injustice and could have major implications for the UK’s global reputation.”
Students have allegedly faced questioning or have been stopped from re-entering the UK after trips home on the grounds that they have supposedly fraudulent English certificates, even if they are considered to be in good academic standing by their institution and may have been able to rely on other, genuine qualifications to gain entry to Britain.
Shreya Paudel, the NUS international students’ officer, said he was “incredibly disappointed at the slow progress of the working group”, warning that the lack of support would leave many students who have already paid substantial fees unable to take up alternative places.
“It is outrageous that the government isn’t taking this seriously and isn’t supporting students who have been affected by this situation in the same way that it has in the past,” he said.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of post-1992 universities, called on Mr Brokenshire to “restore confidence” in the working group by appointing an independent chairman.
“The fact that the chair is a UKVI compliance officer and UKVI also acts as the secretariat means that UKVI is effectively judge and jury,” she said.
Glyndwr University is the only higher education institution that is still unable to sponsor international students following the government action.
A Home Office spokeswoman said that everything possible was being done to help students. But she added: “Immigration rules are not optional extras for the education sector. Universities must abide by the rules to keep their highly trusted sponsor status, and would-be students must qualify for their visas. We will always take action when either of them fails to do so.”
A spokesman for Universities UK said that the organisation would continue to participate in the group.
But he added: “We would like to see more and quicker progress in assisting those students affected, and are making sure that the Home Office understands our concerns so that they can be addressed.”
Licensed exemption: Cambridge should be a ‘test-bed’ for locally decided visa
Calls have been made for visa regulations to be relaxed for the most successful university-led high-tech research clusters.
The idea of a local “licensed exemption” from some immigration rules was first floated with the backing of the University of Cambridge. The call came amid fears that restrictions on post-study work options were deterring postgraduates from staying in the city to commercialise their ideas and might even put them off coming to study in the UK in the first place.
The plan did not win the government’s backing when it was presented as part of the Greater Cambridge City Deal negotiations for stronger local economic powers.
However, concerns remain that immigration criteria are unduly strict – or, at least, that the perception overseas is that the criteria are not welcoming.
This has led to suggestions that local easing of immigration rules should be considered afresh for Cambridge as well as for other high-tech communities.
Tony Raven, chief executive of university commercialisation arm Cambridge Enterprise, said that visa hurdles were a major issue because three-quarters of spin-offs had at least one team member from outside the European Union.
One key problem with graduate entrepreneur visas – which the government brought in after closing the post-study work route – is that they last for a maximum of two years, and this makes it difficult to attract investment, Dr Raven said. He also described how one graduate had been forced to leave the country after his bank balance dropped briefly below the level that was set as part of the eligibility criteria.
“If we couldn’t improve national policies which apply to international perception, at least something that allows us to mitigate the consequences of that locally would be second best,” Dr Raven said.
Applicants for graduate entrepreneur visas have to be endorsed as having a “genuine and credible” business idea.
Only 119 of these permits were issued in the first year of the scheme, but the City Deal proposal would have given Cambridge researchers greater flexibility to join, with more time to develop their ideas and apply for funding.
This could have encouraged up to 100 more top thinkers to stay on every year in Cambridge alone, according to the university’s estimates.
Andrew Lynn, an entrepreneur in residence at Cambridge’s Judge Business School, described how he had to hand in his Canadian passport for six months for his visa renewal. This was a major challenge when he was trying to raise funds for a spin-off.
Dr Lynn suggested that the solution may lie in devolving decision-making to local panels made up of experienced business leaders.
He said: “Hopefully, we could get Cambridge being able to expedite or give the seal of approval to the most talented people, and the Border Agency [now UK Visas and Immigration] would get the reassurance that it is not just someone calling themselves an entrepreneur.
“I think Cambridge would work as a test-bed for something like that.”
Cambridge is not the only place that has argued for the introduction of different rules for certain areas. The recent report from the City Growth Commission suggests that the UK’s largest urban areas should be allowed to offer a more flexible form of graduate entrepreneur visa.