Another tightening of student visa rules is being viewed as evidence that the Home Office is winning its “war of attrition” over its Whitehall opponents on the issue, as well as heralding a “sudden death” threat for smaller universities.
Prime minister David Cameron and home secretary Theresa May announced on 29 July that from November “tougher rules will be imposed on universities and colleges who sponsor international students to study in the UK”.
At present, universities would lose highly trusted sponsor status if more than 20 per cent of the students they offer places to are refused visas. But that threshold will be cut to 10 per cent in November “after a three-month transitional period for colleges and universities to re-examine their admissions procedures before offering individuals places”, Number 10 said in a statement.
The latest action comes after James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, announced in June that the government had suspended Glyndwr University’s sponsor licence and temporarily stopped two other universities, Bedfordshire and West London, from recruiting further international students.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “This latest announcement will add to the perception that Britain is slowly closing the door. It suggests the Home Office is winning the war of attrition against those in Westminster and Whitehall who want a different approach…including parts of the Treasury, the Foreign Office, BIS [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] and the Number 10 Policy Unit, not to mention half a dozen select committees.”
The departure of David Willetts as universities and science minister has left BIS without its key figure in the struggle with Ms May over student visas, which means that the Home Office may be in a stronger position to push through policy.
A Universities UK spokesman said it was “important to note” that a student visa refusal “does not always equate to a deliberate attempt to abuse the immigration rules”.
“It can relate to a genuine mistake by the applicant in failing to provide the precise documentation…problems that could be addressed easily,” he said. “Using visa refusal rates as a measure to determine the future of a sponsor’s HTS status is a blunt mechanism and could also have a disproportionate impact on smaller institutions.”
He added: “For such a system to work, the Home Office must improve the feedback to universities on student visa refusals to ensure they can tackle any applications that are genuinely bogus and monitor their performance rigorously.”
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said the move was unlikely to have a major effect on most universities but would “make some of them much more cautious and that will mean that some theoretically good students might not get offers”. He added that the announcement might affect “students who may not sit in Mr Cameron’s description of the ‘brightest and the best’”, but who nonetheless do well in UK universities.
However, for small and specialist institutions “it will be really quite challenging”, continued Mr Scott, given that a 10 per cent threshold could equate to a handful of refusals putting their licence in jeopardy. For such institutions “this looks like sudden death”, he said.