Student visa curbs 'not based on evidence'

The government is making “optimistic” assumptions about the effect of its student visa policy and must do more to base its plans on evidence, a group of MPs has warned.

July 26, 2011

In a follow-up report to its main study on the issue published in March, the Home Affair committee says ministers are even ignoring their own evidence by dismissing the validity of an impact assessment.

The government announced changes to the rules governing student visas earlier this year in a bid to clamp down on bogus colleges, but there are fears that reputable private institutions could suffer, with universities also potentially feeling a knock-on effect.

Changes include removing rights for students at private colleges to work while studying, forcing independent higher education institutions to be inspected by the Quality Assurance Agency and restrictions to the post-study work route for overseas graduates.

An impact assessment on the policy, published by the Home Office last month, showed it could cost the UK economy up to £3.6 billion, including a loss of tuition fees to institutions of up to £170 million.

The committee says in its analysis published today that it is “disappointed” the impact assessment was published 12 weeks after the policy was announced.

It also questions some of the assumptions made in the document, saying the suggestion that all universities would keep “highly trusted” sponsor status was optimistic given the temporary suspension of Glasgow Caledonian University earlier this year.

The MPs also draw attention to the assumption that private colleges and English-language schools can make up lost demand by recruiting more European Union and UK students, and bringing in overseas students on shorter courses through “visitor” visas.

“We question whether it will be as easy for institutions to fill student places and replace lost income as the government’s impact assessment suggests,” the report states.

Noting that home secretary Theresa May had herself dismissed the usefulness of the impact assessment, the committee adds: “We are concerned that the Home Office still does not take evidence-based policy as seriously as it could.

“We urge them to adopt a more evidence-based approach to policy making rather than risk determining policies separately from examining the evidence.”

Les Ebdon, chair of the million+ group of new universities, said the government was risking a “massive” hit to education exports if it ignored the committee’s concerns.

“Of course universities support a crack-down on bogus colleges but changes to the student visa system must be based on rigorous evidence rather than ministerial whim,” he said.

In a separate development, the Scottish Affairs Committee today warned that the new visa rules could have a “disproportionate” negative effect on Scotland because the country has a relatively larger higher education sector than the rest of the UK.

The committee took evidence from the University of Strathclyde, which estimated that international students contributed £188 million directly to Scottish universities.

The University of St Andrews said that international students were “absolutely vital” to its long term financial stability, while the committee was told that because international students cross-subsidise less economically viable courses, some would be put at risk if international numbers were reduced.

Because the average Scottish degree is four years long rather than three, the committee also said that a maximum time limit of five years on any student visa would hit Scotland harder than England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

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