Only the genuine will pass

New immigration rules will defend the sector's reputation by sifting out bogus students and institutions, says Phil Woolas

April 2, 2009

Foreign students play a huge part in the UK's cultural and economic wealth - last year they contributed £2.5 billion to the UK economy in tuition fees alone - and they help make the UK's education sector one of the finest in the world.

However, not everyone who comes here claiming to want to study is genuine, and not every organisation that sets itself up as a college really wants to teach.

That is why it is so important to put in place a system for foreign students that weeds out not only those people who want to use a sham college course as a front to work illegally, but also the dodgy institutions that let them do so.

A few days ago, that is exactly what happened. On 31 March, the Home Office launched the student tier of its tough new points-based system.

We've worked closely with the sector, taking on board suggestions and making tweaks to ensure that it works for everyone.

The new system works on the principle of sponsorship. A university or college can bring foreign students here only if they have been vetted and approved by the UK Border Agency. In turn, a foreign student can come here only via sponsorship by a bona fide college or university.

This means that the people who benefit from bringing over foreign students must take responsibility for ensuring that those students comply with the conditions of their leave to be in the UK. Before they can come, students will also need to provide their fingerprints and prove that they can support themselves financially.

All this means that only genuine students can come here and that we can expose bogus colleges that threaten the reputations of genuine education institutions.

But in these changing economic times we also need to make sure that those who do come here to study are the ones who will bring the most benefit to Britain. That is why visas will be granted only to students with a proven track record in education. This will ensure that only students who are likely to make the greatest economic contribution after their course ends - by working in high-earning jobs, paying lots of tax and moving industries forward - can come here.

This new system for foreign students is one of five tiers that make up our points-based system for people who want to come here from abroad to study and work. Highly skilled and skilled workers come through Tiers 1 and 2 respectively, Tier 3 for low-skilled workers is currently suspended, Tier 4 is for students, and Tier 5 is for people coming for primarily non-economic purposes.

The beauty of the points system is its flexibility. It allows us to raise or lower the bar to entry according to the needs of the economy and the country.

Following consultation with stakeholders, we have said that to satisfy the financial maintenance test, international students need to show evidence of funds to support themselves for a nine-month academic year rather than 12 months. We have also said that students can come for the length of their course rather than for a maximum of four years.

This means that students on courses up to nine months long must show that they have £800 a month if they are studying in London, or £600 if they're outside London, for each month of their course. For students on courses that run for more than nine months, we will expect them to show that they have funds to pay the first year of fees, plus £7,200 for London or £5,400 outside London to cover living expenses for an academic year in the UK. These amounts are significant enough to ensure that the route is not a target for abuse, but not so large that genuine students are deterred from coming here.

So far, things are going well. More than 2,105 universities and colleges have applied to join the new sponsorship register that will allow them to bring foreign students into Britain. Perhaps more importantly, more than 467 institutions haven't made it through our screening process and on to the list of approved sponsors.

All this means that Britain can continue to recruit good students from outside Europe while stopping those who seek to damage our reputation.

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