Chris Johnston reports on the impact of falling overseas numbers
The number of foreign students entering the UK fell last year as more visa applications were rejected and higher charges were imposed.
The drop is a big blow to UK universities dependent on revenues from the lucrative overseas students market. The figures have come to light just weeks after Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, said that foreign students were "what makes it possible for the academic enterprise to continue".
The number of people from outside the European Union arriving in the UK on student visas fell by 14 per cent to 318,630 in 2003, Home Office statistics show.
According to UKvisas, the joint Foreign Office-Home Office agency that processes applications, 52,520 requests for student visas (almost 30 per cent of the total number of requests) were refused in 2002-03, a rise of 13,647 over the previous year.
In response to the the figures, David Rendel, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, said the immigration service had been a "complete mess" for years. "We are crazy to try to keep people out of this country who want to study here," he added.
Tony Millns, chief executive of English UK, the association of accredited English-language teaching centres, questioned why the rejection rate for student visa applications was twice that for tourist visas. "I do not understand why it should be so much higher," he said.
Acceptance rates varied widely across the world. The highest number of refused requests, 14,331, came from South Asia in 2002-03, while almost half of applications from equatorial Africa (48 per cent) were rejected.
Not one of the 9,464 visa applications made in Taipei was rejected, but 30 per cent of the 17,435 applications made in Beijing were turned down.
Part of the problem appears to be inconsistent decision-making in consulates that continue to assess applicants by interview, according to a government watchdog report published in June.
Entry clearance officers are expected to conduct 40 interviews a day - but only 35 of the 162 post-holders were able to meet the target last year, the National Audit Office said.
The NAO notes the wide variation in refusal rates between posts. It says:
"Entry clearance decisions are made on the basis of probabilities. This makes it difficult for UKvisas to measure whether fair and firm decisions are being made on a consistent basis." The NAO found that 24 per cent of student visa refusals were overturned on appeal.
The figures will worry university heads, who are becoming increasingly concerned about rising visa fees. In August last year, the Government began charging for applications to extend stays in the UK. Requests made by post cost £155, and those made in person cost £250.
The Home Office has begun a consultation that proposes charging non-EU citizens already in Britain as much as £495 to apply for or extend a student visa.
A high proportion of students, particularly those at universities, find they have to extend their visas because the residence period initially granted does not cover the length of a course. The consultation points out, however, that the number needing to extend visas is expected to fall next year with the introduction of new student visa rules.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of UKCOSA, the Council for International Education, said: "Now is not the right time for 'supercharging'. This is a fragile market, and extra fees will not only put individuals off but will also tarnish the UK's reputation because students are being seen as cash cows."
Benson Osawe, National Union of Students international officer, said the visa charges were another hidden cost on top of already high tuition fees.
He added: "The Government is insensitive to the hardship students face while studying. These fees are becoming out of reach for most students from less developed countries."
A Home Office spokesman said that individuals who extend their stay in the UK should meet the full costs of processing their applications. "There is no reason for this to be paid out of general taxation, and it will save £21 million," he said.
However, the Home Office consultation paper says the Government is "keen to ensure that fee increases do not deter foreign students from coming to the UK".
English UK, meanwhile, met UKvisas and Universities UK this week to discuss student visas and efforts to crack down on bogus English-language colleges.
When the Home Office completes its list of genuine education colleges, visas will be issued only to students applying to these establishments.