UK universities are spending tens of millions of pounds a year complying with immigration red tape, new figures suggest.
Data obtained by Study Group, which prepares international students for university entry, found that several universities are spending about £500,000 each to satisfy Tier 4 visa regulations, which apply to the majority of international students from outside the European Union studying in the UK.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the company asked 50 UK universities to state how much it cost them to comply with Home Office rules each year. Around half of institutions did not record the information and some refused to answer, but 20 did hold records, stating it cost them about £4 million in total to abide by immigration rules, such as the monitoring of students.
The University of Nottingham spent the most on visa compliance with a yearly bill estimated at £500,000 and was followed by the University of Manchester (£485,000) and Brunel University London (£451,000). London South Bank University spent £350,000 on visa compliance, while four institutions (the universities of Bournemouth, Glasgow and Westminster, as well as the University of the West of England) paid out between £200,000 and £300,000 a year.
Given the outlay by these 20 universities alone, the sector’s total bill for complying with Tier 4 regulations is likely to run into tens of millions of pounds, the figures suggest.
In fact, the cost of compliance may be far higher because universities had different approaches as to what counted as expenditure on this area; the University of Oxford, where one-third of its students are international, said it spent just £58,000 on compliance, while the University of Brighton claimed to spend only £8,000 a year in this area.
James Pitman, Study Group’s managing director for higher education in the UK and Europe, said the figures “highlight how the UK Border Agency compliance regime had become incredibly complex”.
The company’s own annual compliance bill stood at £1.9 million, partly because their 375 staff who correspond with about 3,000 student recruitment agents carry out work previously done by universities themselves, Mr Pitman said.
“As the Home Office has introduced new rules, they have transferred a lot of the checking and monitoring to the sector itself,” said Mr Pitman.
“The Home Office is saving money, but the cost to the higher education sector has gone up,” he added.
Universities had faced a “double whammy” on visa compliance because the Home Office had simultaneously made it more difficult for students to apply successfully while shifting the cost burden on to universities, Mr Pitman argued.
“If the Home Office had been more welcoming to students people would be much happier with this transfer of costs,” he said.
However, Mr Pitman said there had been a “noticeable change in the attitude of many [government] departments” since the publication of new data by the Office for National Statistics in August, which showed high rates of visa compliance by overseas students – contrary to previous assertions by the Home Office and Theresa May. The previous estimate of illegal overstayers was 100,000 and had been used by Mrs May to justify plans for tougher student visa requirements.
“It is now virtually impossible to find anyone from any party willing to support that position,” said Mr Pitman, who described the overseas student market as having the “greatest potential for growth of any UK export market in post-Brexit Britain”. The Migration Advisory Committee is now undertaking a study into the value of international students to the UK economy.
In a statement, the Home Office said the UK “attracts the highest number of overseas students after the US and we recognise and value the economic and cultural benefits they bring.”
“As sponsors, universities benefit directly from this migration and it is only right that they fulfil certain duties to ensure that the system is not abused,” it added.