Fears are growing that a toughening of government rules on visa refusal rates could lead to a number of universities losing their licences to recruit overseas students, with suggestions that many are above the new 10 per cent threshold for visa application failures.
One senior sector source suggested that official figures showed a spread of between 1 per cent and 17 per cent for universities on visa refusals, with an average of 8.8 per cent. The source estimated that this would leave about 35 to 40 universities above the 10 per cent threshold – including some Russell Group institutions – and thus at risk of losing their licences to recruit international students.
A separate letter to a university group from James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, cites an average visa refusal rate of 8.9 per cent among institutions. However, it is unclear whether he refers to universities or to all educational institutions – and the Home Office refused to clarify the figure.
Universities grant Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies letters to non-European Union students whom they have accepted for entry. Students then use these letters as part of their subsequent visa applications.
But it is not within the power of universities to entirely control their visa refusal rates, as student errors in documentation and Home Office judgements in credibility interviews are among the factors that can lead to rejections. Some fear that to a certain extent this puts universities’ sponsor licences at the mercy of external variables.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Theresa May, the home secretary, announced on 29 July that from November “tougher rules will be imposed on universities and colleges who sponsor international students to study in the UK”, meaning that institutions that exceed a 10 per cent failure rate for visa applications face losing their Highly Trusted Status, which enables them to sponsor student visas.
The announcement was expected after being previously floated by Mr Brokenshire.
The immigration minister also said in a June letter to university group Million+ that he was “concerned that there remain some institutions offering places to individuals who do not meet the immigration rules”.
Mr Brokenshire added: “Reducing the maximum permitted refusal level from 20 per cent to 10 per cent will not affect the vast majority of institutions. However, where institutions are near that refusal rate it gives rise to considerable concerns about those institutions and their approach and it is intended to affect those who are not carrying out proper checks on those they recruit or are actively seeking to evade immigration control.”
He went on to say that the 20 per cent refusal rate was introduced in 2010 when the average refusal rate was 21.17 per cent. “It is now 8.9 per cent,” Mr Brokenshire continued.
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “Our universities have excellent records as student visa sponsors and expect no adverse effects from this change.”
Other sources suggested that the average visa refusal rate across the Russell Group is 2 per cent, which would be likely to mean that the licences of very few, if any, of its members would be in jeopardy.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: “There is no robust evidence to support the Home Office’s claim that institutional visa refusal rates are a high-quality measure of a university’s performance in terms of its Highly Trusted Status.”
Don Ingham, a former head of managed migration at the Home Office who now runs Veristat, an immigration consultancy that advises education providers, said that the 10 per cent threshold was “very tight” and “will concern a number of universities, no doubt about it”.
Universities “can try as hard as they want, but there are variables [such as] what the student chooses to do and the quality of Home Office processes”, he said. “These [are] variables they can’t really control.”
Mr Ingham said that credibility interviews conducted by Home Office staff for student visa applicants from “high-risk” countries introduced a subjective variable into the process, asking potential students for detailed answers about their chosen courses, including module content.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are tightening the rules to make sure colleges and universities, who directly benefit from student migration, work with us to prevent abuse – or lose their ability to recruit international students.” But he added that the change “should not affect the vast majority of institutions”.