Foreign students wooed by Labour

June 25, 1999

A bid to attract more fee-paying international students to UK institutions was launched by prime minister Tony Blair last week, setting an ambitious target of 75,000 extra overseas students by 2005, with two-thirds of them entering higher education.

The government's Chevening Scholarship Scheme has also been earmarked for expansion with an additional 500 scholarships funded by universities, businesses and the government.

A package of reforms aims to recoup the millions of pounds in potential business the UK loses every year to other countries with more transparent entry procedures.

The visa application process, limits on the right to work in the UK while studying, and rules on leave to enter and remain, present hurdles to prospective students.

Administrative errors could fail applications under the current system. A one-stop shop is proposed where students are guided through the process by their interviewer.

Tony Lockhart, head of the British Council's UK regional network, said: "The marketing people are also the consulate people, which makes for a smoother, more welcoming procedure." A similar model has been successfully implemented in Australia.

Visa officers will be trained by the UKCOSA, the Council of International Education, to help establish the new guidelines.

"Inappropriate obstacles" will be removed to make it easier for foreign students to find part-time work in the UK. The grey areas surrounding sandwich courses will also be cleared away by simple guidelines in an attempt to make Britain a more attractive destination.

The move follows the recent UKCOSA survey which showed foreign students saw the UK's visa process as both "mystifying" and "intimidating".

A series of information booklets has been launched to coincide with the changes. It is hoped that the strategy will boost the British education market by Pounds 1 billion.

* 'My family were denied visas'

John X, who does not wish to be named, had no problems with his own visa application, but his wife and two young children were not as fortunate.

Their visa was denied, although no evidence was given for its rejection.

He said: "After asking me many questions the visa officer said he was not convinced that I was going to come back although I had proved this. He told me that I was going to have to be apart from my family for the year."

John contacted the university international office upon arrival at his UK institution and explained the situation.

They badgered the embassy until it admitted that the family's application had neither been granted nor denied, but that it was awaiting investigation.

After a six-month separation John was joined by his family.

* 'I was met at the airport and put on the train. It couldn't have been easier'

As a Chevening scholar, Asomiddin Atoev, 30, studying for an MSc in computer science at Salford University, had few problems in gaining a place and a visa. He applied to both UK and US higher education institutions, but found the British system easier to cope with.

He recalls: "The American form was far too long and boring. The British one was short and to the point."

The length of the application form was not the only factor that clinched his decision to take up Salford's offer of a place on a MSc course in computer science.

"The people at the British embassy were very helpful," he said.

Having to make the journey from his home in Tajikistan to the British embassy in Uzbekistan several times was both tiring and time consuming, but Mr Atoev said the process was made as painless as possible.

"Of course they asked me why I wanted to study in the UK, and how I would use my experiences to help my country, but I was sent all the necessary documents to help me prepare beforehand."

The embassy sent a letter authorising his travel to and from interviews in case any political difficulties arose. The entire process took between three and four months, a figure the government is trying to reduce.

Immigration was just as straightforward, but Mr Atoev thinks this could have been something to do with the fact that he was a Chevening scholar.

He said: "I was met at the airport and put on the correct train by a British Council representative. It couldn't have been easier."

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