The Home Office has liberalised student visa rules at just four highly selective English universities in a pilot for master's students, prompting claims that it is creating a “two-tier system”.
The two-year pilot scheme, which launched on 25 July, eases visa rules for those applying to master’s courses at the University of Bath, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Imperial College London in what is described as a test of a “differentiated approach” on student visas.
The move comes swiftly after Theresa May’s elevation to prime minister and her replacement as home secretary by Amber Rudd. In Ms May’s time as home secretary, the Home Office, in talks within government, was seen as showing willingness to ease visa restrictions for Russell Group or “top” institutions only.
The universities involved in the pilot will be made responsible for eligibility checks, meaning that students can submit a reduced level of supporting documents on aspects such as prior qualifications as part of their visa applications, a new Home Office document on guidance for the Tier 4 student visa system reveals.
And students within the pilot at the four universities will be allowed to stay in the UK for six months after the end of their courses to find a graduate job here.
But that does not amount to a reintroduction of post-study work visas, which universities have long advocated. The pilot is only designed to allow participants time to find jobs via the established Tier 2 skilled worker visa route.
A government Q&A on the scheme circulated to vice-chancellors says the four universities “were selected due to their consistently low level of visa refusals. The pilot is intentionally narrow in scope in order to monitor the pilot outcomes against the stated objectives and to minimise the risk of unintended consequences before considering rolling it out more widely.”
It adds that the aim is to “test the benefits of a differentiated approach within Tier 4, whilst ensuring that any changes do not undermine the robust application of immigration requirements”.
And the Q&A document also says that the pilot will be "kept under close review" with a formal evaluation undertaken by the Home Office. "The results of the ongoing monitoring and evaluation will inform any decision to roll the pilot out more widely,” it adds.
The use of visa refusal rates to select the four universities will prove controversial among universities. Many argue that refusal rates are attributable mainly to administrative errors by individual students or the judgements of immigration officers, rather than to universities.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities, said: “This pilot formalises a differentiated approach to universities that will concern many vice-chancellors and principals and should concern the Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
“A two-tier system based on the cohorts that these four institutions recruit in no way reflects the wider international market in which universities throughout the UK engage.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as universities minister, said: “We still have a single national UK-wide higher education system. But it is stretching at the seams and any attempts to pick off a few universities or a few subjects and to treat them differently risks ripping that apart.
“In the end, the whole country will lose because it is equivalent to telling the rest of the world we value some things more than others.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We welcome people who want to come to the UK to study at our world-leading institutions and this carefully targeted pilot scheme will help to ensure they remain highly competitive and continue to attract the brightest and the best students from around the world.”
She added: “Students within the pilot will still need to meet all Home Office Immigration Rules, including being subject to the appropriate identity and security checks. Applications that do not meet the Immigration Rules will be refused.”