V-cs warn that a £10bn overseas market is at risk Vice-chancellors warned of potentially devastating damage to the £10 billion overseas student market this week as it emerged that one in five legitimate international students at one university had been refused entry to Britain to take up their places.
There is already concern over the drop in the number of overseas applications, but fears have worsened over reports that entry clearance officers are unfairly refusing visas for students who have been accepted on to courses.
The Prime Minister was warned about the issue after a drop in the number of enrolments last year. Vice-chancellors fear the problem is worse this year because of the July 7 London terrorist attacks.
Enrolment figures for this academic year are still being compiled as students arrive to start courses. But Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, revealed that as many as 20 per cent of his overseas students had been barred from the country.
He said: "This is entirely due to the problems students have experienced in obtaining visas. At least 200 legitimate students have been refused entry to study with us. The policy of the Home Office is responsible for a loss of fee income to us of £1.5 million. The long-term damage to the reputation of the UK as an attractive, affordable and welcoming place to study is incalculable."
Professor Knight said his overseas numbers were modest, but if there were similar problems at institutions that rely more heavily on this source of income there could be a crisis.
Overseas students pay £1.25 billion in tuition fees and are said by the British Council to be worth £10 billion to the UK economy.
The sector is already reeling from recent moves to increase the cost of student entry visas from £36 to £85 and to double the cost of visa extensions.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that the number of applications from outside the European Union fell 5.3 per cent, from 24,388 in 2003-04 to 23,096 in 2004-05. The number of applications from China, one of the biggest markets, fell 25.8 per cent.
Universities UK research shows that in addition to the drop in the number of applications, there was a 5 per cent fall in the number of admissions as students were denied visas.
The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill includes moves to deny students a right of appeal over visa refusals.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said that she was surveying members to get a clear picture of enrolments this year.
But she said: "One of the most significant issues that our universities have raised with the Government is about the quality of the decision-making of entry clearance officers. Bona fide students are being denied visas for often inexcusable reasons.
"If, as it seems from UCE's experience this year, students are still being denied visas, then it is disgraceful and needs to be investigated urgently."
Alasdair Smith, vice-chancellor of Sussex University, said: "My perception is that there is a continuing problem with the degree of arbitrary decision-making by entry clearance officers."
Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said his enrolments figures from overseas were looking strong, although it would be clearer when the cash-flow figures became available at the end of the month.
But he warned: "Low enrolments are a real issue for universities that banked on getting big overseas recruitment agencies to deliver them lots and lots of students this year."
The Home Office said that the vast majority of students are granted entry clearance, but decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis and immigration officers must be satisfied that entry requirements have been met.
Blair told of 'unfair' decisions
Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, was warned last year of fears that entry clearance officers were making "unfair" decisions to stop overseas students taking up their places in Britain.
Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, which represents post-92 institutions, turned to No 10 because the problem needed an "interventionist" approach. Responsibility for the issue was spread between the Home and Foreign Offices, and was a concern for the Department for Education and Skills.
CMU provided a list of examples of decisions that it believed were unfair - ranging from a decision to refuse one visa because a similar course was on offer in the student's home country to refusals to students who were on joint programmes with British universities.
CMU said this week that the Prime Minister's response was "not very satisfactory".