UK HE demands reform of visa system that costs sector ‘£40m a year’

Sector’s representative and mission groups unite to call for change ahead of new PM’s entrance

July 18, 2019
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The UK’s sector groups have united to demand that the government “urgently reform” a student visa system that costs universities an estimated £40 million a year, calling for the abolition of credibility interviews and the 10 per cent visa refusal rate threshold.

The current system is not only inefficient but is harming the international student experience and places costly burdens on universities, according to a briefing document from Universities UK, GuildHE, the Russell Group, University Alliance, MillionPlus and the UK Council for International Student Affairs. The document, released to Times Higher Education ahead of its publication, coincides with Theresa May’s exit and the advent of a new prime minister and cabinet.

The recent government White Paper on immigration and the International Education Strategy have provided an opportunity “to rethink” how the student visa system operates in the UK, according to the coalition of sector bodies.

The new system should be cost-effective and simple to administer, and enable growth in international student numbers from a diverse range of applicants, they say.

Jo Johnson, the former universities minister, said: “The UK will lose its world-beating position in the global higher education market if it does not improve its offer to international students. The proposals put forward in this briefing highlight a number of ways in which the government could help make the UK a more attractive destination for international students.

“It is essential that well-meaning measures to prevent the exploitation of student visas do not become unnecessarily burdensome on universities or put off the brightest and the best students from studying in the UK.”

As part of the background to the briefing, UUK conducted a survey on staff time associated with Tier 4 compliance and found that overall cost of compliance to the current system for the sector was an estimated £40 million a year, which would then increase by an additional £12.3m if European Union students were included following Brexit.

Providing qualified immigration advice to students and staff, attendance monitoring and analysing and interpreting UK Visas and Immigration advice were among the most expensive tasks.

According to a 2018 survey, international students are worth about 10 times more to the UK economy than they cost the taxpayer. But the groups warned that “an inadequate visa system can put prospective students off choosing a country as their study destination” and can damage their experience while they are in the UK.

The briefing said that credibility interviews, introduced to ensure only genuine students are given Tier 4 visas, are “inadequate”, with judgements made based on arbitrary, subjective and personal questions – and therefore should be scrapped.

The document also says that attendance monitoring should “not encourage the differential treatment of international students on campus” and the requirement for police registration should be removed too.

And it calls for the government to abolish the rule that strips universities of the ability to recruit international students if more than 10 per cent of their applicants are refused visas – arguing that universities have limited involvement in visa refusals or acceptances.

This rule particularly affects smaller universities, according to the briefing, but also leads universities to be overly cautious about recruiting from certain parts of the world, because certain nationalities are seen as more likely to be rejected.

Under the present immigration system, applicants are often met with a service that is expensive – more so than the UK’s competitor countries – and fails to function smoothly, the briefing argues.

To streamline the system, the government must ease the bureaucratic process and remove the requirement to provide duplicate information, it adds.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said that the report shows the strength of feeling on this issue across the sector and the consensus on what reforms are needed.

Attracting more international students “will bring huge advantages to the UK economy and society, but we need a world-class student visa system that matches this ambition”, he said. “The government now has a great opportunity to tackle inefficiencies in the system, reform the student experience and create a welcoming offer that will boost the UK’s reputation internationally.”

Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK chief executive, said that the UK’s offer to international students is “being held back by long-standing and uncompetitive policy barriers. It is time to correct these."

“In any post-Brexit immigration system, the student experience should not be significantly different for international students than for UK students and we will continue to push government to ensure that this is recognised,” he added.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘£40m a year’ visa system needs reform

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