Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, claimed in March that the government was ignoring “growing abuse” by students using this route.
But a government report, released on 6 June, says that the option, which allows students to undertake a course of study for up to six months, is largely being used to take courses at institutions which are already licensed to sponsor international students.
Student visitors do not need to be sponsored by an institution, but cannot work, do work experience, bring dependents to the UK or switch to another visa immigration category.
The route was introduced in 2007, and in 2011 a record 262,000 student visitors came to the UK, but “the evidence suggests the student visitor route is being used as intended and abuse is minimal,” Student Visitors says.
Of these, 115,000 came from the US, the report notes. There were also at least 10,000 student visitors each from Brazil, Russia, Japan, China and Turkey.
Around two thirds of these students were coming to study English language courses, while exchange programmes were also popular, particularly with those from the US.
For certain countries, such as the US and Brazil, student visitors do not need a visa, but for others, including Russia and China, they need to apply for a visitor visa before coming to the UK.
Of those who did not need visas, 7 per cent reported that they had previously come to the UK as a student visitor.
Less than one per cent of those who successfully applied for a visitor visa had been refused entry to the UK during the previous decade, the report says.
Mark Harper, the immigration minister, said in a statement: “It is right that international students have the opportunity to take up short courses in our world-class colleges and universities, and this research shows how well the system is working.”
Student visitors who did not require a visa intended to stay a median average of seven weeks, and less than one quarter wanted to remain in the UK for more than 12. For those that did require visas, the average length of stay was 29 days.
In 2011 an extended student visitor visa was introduced, allowing up to 11 month stays for English language programmes, although these are not covered by the report.