The UK government’s decision to keep key figures on universities’ visa refusal rates secret has been described as an effort to conceal “uncomfortable” data and a step on the road to reducing overseas student numbers.
Universities’ visa refusal rates may be the means by which the Home Office seeks to create a differentiated overseas student regime, potentially restricting recruitment access at some institutions.
The Home Office selected four universities – Bath, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London – for a pilot scheme easing the visa regime for their master’s applicants, based on the institutions’ “low level of visa refusals”.
Already, universities must ensure that no more than 10 per cent of their prospective students applying for visas receive a refusal, or the institution will lose its Tier 4 sponsor licence to recruit overseas students.
During the continuing House of Lords committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill on 11 January, the government rejected an amendment from Conservative peer Lord Lucas that called for the government to publish figures on the number of visas applied for and granted, by institution.
Lord Lucas said that his amendment would “enable people to understand what is going on with visa approvals and refusals so that we can all have the information we need for a serious debate in this area…so that we can start to look at the performance of the Home Office”.
There are concerns among many in the sector that with figures on visa denial rates not published, refusal decisions against students are not subject to scrutiny.
Viscount Younger of Leckie, the government’s higher education spokesman in the Lords, said that information on visa refusal rates is “regarded as commercially sensitive” because it could damage the reputation of universities.
The Home Office, which is pursuing a target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” and refuses to remove students from the target, has also declined a Freedom of Information request from Times Higher Education to release data on numbers of visa applications and refusals by institution.
In its letter of response, the Home Office said that the information “could prejudice the commercial interests of the educational establishment concerned as this type of publicity could have a detrimental effect on their day-to-day business.
“To disclose unpublished information on Tier 4 student refusal rates relating to named sponsors may damage the sponsors’ commercial interests or reputation in the international student market.”
But Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, argues that it is “in the Home Office’s interest to keep this data private”. He wrote in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute that “whatever it says publicly, the Home Office wants to reduce international student numbers; and it wants discretion over how it does this.
“I don’t know any area of my research life, my academic life or my management life running a university where not having access to data helps people make the right decisions,” Professor Galbraith told THE.
He added that “the data must show something that isn’t comfortable for the government”.
Professor Galbraith said that Portsmouth had a visa refusal rate of under 5 per cent, which would be “not unusual” across the sector.
He added: “If government feels that 5 per cent is unreasonable, then we do need a conversation about that, because then you say, ‘Well, what is reasonable?’”