Higher education leaders have called on Theresa May to stop using international students as a political football in a Conservative Party power struggle, as details emerge of more proposed visa restrictions.
In addition to the home secretary’s mooted plan to force foreign learners to leave the UK after graduation, which was apparently blocked last week by George Osborne, the chancellor, her department has quietly proposed contentious changes to the rules on identity documents, branch campuses, private providers and attendance monitoring in recent months.
Colin Riordan, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University and the chair of the UK Higher Education International Unit, questioned why the Home Office kept “dreaming up new procedures” which made Britain “less inviting” to overseas students. Professor Riordan added his voice to suggestions that Ms May was positioning herself as a hardliner on immigration with a view to a Conservative leadership battle that could be fought after the general election.
“The impression is that the home secretary sees international students as a problem and what explanation could there be for that when the evidence doesn’t seem to bear it out? I think the internal politics of the Conservative Party are a reasonable potential explanation,” he said.
“What the government should be looking at is the key issues that concern the public, and I personally don’t believe that international students are that issue.”
Among the proposals currently being consulted on are plans to require branch campuses to be run as an integrated part of a university, with the same admissions procedures, and to end the practice by which universities can issue a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies for learners who would be enrolled with a partner institution such as a private provider.
In future, the partner institution would have to secure a separate highly trusted status licence – a step that could place an unacceptably high administrative burden on private providers and severely restrict this route to UK higher education, it is feared.
Another new proposal would see new entrants receive a 30-day visa, which could be converted by students into a visa for the duration of their course only once they had been to a post office to collect a biometric identity document.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said the uncertainty of a short-term visa could be “yet one more procedural and perceptual barrier” for students who would be investing up to £100,000 in their course.
Previously, officials have consulted on changes which would oblige universities to withdraw sponsorship from students who fell short of 75 per cent attendance over six months, rather than those who missed 10 consecutive points of contact, as required by current guidelines.
This was apparently put on hold amid concern that it would force institutions to design courses and attendance requirements based on immigration policy rather than academic factors.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group representing a number of post-92 universities, complained that there had been a “steady drip of proposals that are often ill-thought out and which do not appear to have been the subject of any meaningful advance consultation” with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
“The way these matters are being handled suggests that any close working relationship between the sector and the Home Office is now in the past,” said Ms Tatlow.
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that while the Home Office could be overruled by the Treasury on major policy issues, the cumulative impact of apparently “technical” changes could still be considerable.
He argued that control of student immigration policy should be shared with other departments, including BIS.
Sir Christopher Snowden, the vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and the president of Universities UK, said the lobby group had been “successful in preventing some potentially damaging policy proposals being introduced”.
But he added: “A more joined-up approach to immigration policy across government would be helpful.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We continue to work with the education sector to ensure that any abuse of the student visa route is tackled effectively, while at the same time the reputation of our world-class universities is protected.”