Universities have accused the government of reneging on a promise to deliver a period of “policy stability” on visas after plans were revealed that could lead to bonds being demanded from international students to ensure that they do not overstay.
From November, under a pilot scheme, some visitors to the UK from “high-risk” countries could be asked to provide a bond worth hundreds of pounds, which will be returned only if they leave on time.
The eventual scope of the pilot and size of the bond - intially reported as £3,000 - are unclear after reports that David Cameron, the prime minister, had not signed off the policy.
However, a Home Office spokeswoman said in the longer term “ministers are interested in extending the principle to all visa types, including work and student visas, and all countries”.
Daniel Stevens, international students’ officer at the National Union of Students, said: “We now have yet another far-reaching policy proposal, with no notice and no consultation, and for no real purpose beyond crude political point-scoring.”
The coalition has already made a series of changes to UK visa policy that some have claimed are putting off lucrative international students: for example, last year the automatic right to work in the UK for two years after graduation was removed.
The number of applications to universities from outside the European Union has flattened out, with large drops from India offset by big rises from China.
In January, Mark Harper, the immigration minister, said that universities were entering a period when there would be “a lot more policy stability”, but some see this latest announcement as shattering that peace.
A spokesman for Universities UK said that it had urged the government to consider the “unintended consequences” on demand that such a move might have.
“This is clear evidence that there is now a need for more joined-up thinking and better messaging in terms of international students,” he said.
“The government has also committed publicly to a period of stability in the student visa route.”
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, pointed out that overseas students already have to prove that they have enough money to fund one year of tuition fees and nine months of living costs, likely to add up to at least £30,000 in London.
“The extra £3,000 bond is hardly going to be decisive should they think of staying on illegally,” he said.
Although ineffective in deterring illegal immigrants, the bond could be “highly effective” as an “insult” to potential students and their parents, Mr Scott added.
The plans have already been denounced in the Indian media as racist and discriminatory, with calls to impose a similar bond scheme on British visitors to India.
Mr Scott and Mr Stevens also raised fears that the bond would deter parents from attending their children’s degree ceremonies, making the UK even more unattractive as a study destination.
The bond was set to be trialled on visitors from six countries, likely to be India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana.
The Home Office spokeswoman said that details of the pilot were being finalised and it was not yet clear whether it will also apply to student visitor visas, which allow visits of up to 11 months, usually to take English-language courses.