UK’s international students need ‘urgent’ action on visas

Experts say UK government has made good start but must address further uncertainties and Visa Application Centre closures

April 29, 2020
Checking passports during the coronavirus pandemic
Source: Getty
Papers, please: ‘uncertainty in this area will deter international students’

The government needs to “urgently” take steps to ensure that visas for international students are not held up by the coronavirus outbreak, experts have warned.

Following the UK lockdown and universities closing campuses and moving courses online, the government made a series of announcements relaxing visa requirements for international students, including temporarily allowing students to renew or change the category of their visas without having to return to their home country.

However, Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said “the priority is making sure the system is working at all, because one of the things spooking us is that the Visa Application Centres are closed”.

The Academic Technology Approval Scheme, required for those who study certain subjects at postgraduate level, is also not functioning, she added. “If we don’t get those systems up and running, it will be hard to send the message to international students, many of whom do still want to study here, that they can get the visas they need,” she said.

She added that it was “really welcome” that the Home Office had allowed universities to self-assess English-language competence to get around the closure of secure English-language testing centres caused by the pandemic.

And while the government has relaxed the rules about studying online – usually banned for those on Tier 4 visas – for current holders until 31 May, that concession must be extended further, she said.

James Pitman, managing director of Study Group, agreed. As institutions are preparing to have some or all their courses online for the first term of the 2020-21 academic year, the government must be clear about how it will address the “unprecedented circumstance” that international students will find themselves in. “Uncertainty in this area will undoubtedly deter international students and do significant damage to the sector,” he said.

He added that recent flexibility on English testing was “most welcome but only covers a portion of the demand that has been building up in markets such as China”.

Universities UK recently sent a series of proposals to the government aimed at protecting universities from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which called for additional flexibilities in the visa system. The National Union of Students (NUS) told Times Higher Education that it supported the request.

Eva Crossan Jory, vice-president for welfare at the NUS, said the predicted decline in international students would have “a hugely detrimental effect on the experience for all students on campus, as well as the knock-on effects on institutional financial sustainability”.

The government will also need to look to alternative options for European Union students who had planned to come to the UK in September so that they are not required to apply for a Tier 4 visa if courses do not start until 2021, she said.

Ms Stern said “there is real urgency” about the situation. “Without detracting from the great work the department has already done, it is now fixing yesterday's problems,” she said.

The Home Office said it was “keeping the situation under review and will take further steps if needed”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Make visa system a priority, UK told

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