The UK government plans to introduce tougher rules for overseas students coming to Britain to study “low quality” courses, instead prioritising the “best” universities.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, said the government will consult on changes to the “student immigration” system in her speech at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham today.
The proposal for further tightening of student visas is likely to be of huge concern to many in UK higher education, who see overseas students as a vital source of income to all universities as well as a major contribution to the UK economy and British “soft power”.
Ms Rudd reaffirmed the government’s commitment to reducing net migration into the UK to the “tens of thousands”.
As part of this, she said the government would be “looking for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution”.
Ms Rudd added: “The current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying.”
She said the government would consider whether the “one-size-fits-all approach really is right for hundreds of different universities who run thousands of different courses across the country”.
And she added: “We need to look at whether this generous offer for all universities is really adding value for our economy.”
Ms Rudd continued: “I’m passionately committed to making sure our world-leading institutions can attract the brightest and the best. But a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help.
“So our consultation will look at what more we can do to support the best universities and those that stick to the rules, to attract the best talent, while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses.”
Ms Rudd also said following her remarks on overseas students that she wanted to send a “warning to those that simply oppose any steps to reduce net migration. This government will not waver in its commitment to put the interests of the British people first.”
She did not offer any signal on what method the government would use to identify “the best” universities. But there will be speculation that the teaching excellence framework, which will award universities ratings of “bronze”, “silver” and “gold”, could be used.
Universities will be concerned that Theresa May’s elevation to prime minister from home secretary – where she sought to tighten the visa regime for students – has brought about a dramatic escalation in the government’s willingness to not just toughen the student visa regime but also to take a differentiated approach to different types of university.
After Ms May became prime minister, the Home Office announced a pilot scheme in which master’s student applying to the universities of Bath, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London would be given preferential treatment on visas.