Visa concessions made, but question marks remain

Clampdown not as harsh as first feared, but still problematic, critics claim. Simon Baker reports

March 24, 2011

Question marks remain over the ability of universities to weather the government's clampdown on immigration after it finally announced its decision on student visas.

A high-profile campaign in which vice-chancellors warned of the dire threat posed to the sector by visa restrictions appears to have won some concessions - most notably the continuation of a limited opening for students to stay in the country after graduating.

However, there are fears that the measures announced on 22 March by Theresa May, the home secretary, who hopes to cut up to 80,000 student visas, will still harm the UK academy's international recruitment.

Although most of the decisions will not affect higher education institutions directly, they will hit many of the private colleges used as pathways by non-European Union students wishing to progress to degree courses in the UK.

Ms May said some colleges "are not undertaking the due diligence we expect".

She said the sector is "effectively unregulated", and "the product (some colleges are selling) is not an education, but immigration together with an ability to work here". She added: "We've got so-called students turning up at Heathrow Airport without being able to answer questions in English."

There are likely to be concerns that negative media reports about the restrictions may influence prospective students abroad - an effect well documented in Australia, which experienced a substantial drop in applications following a tightening of its visa rules.

Among the measures announced by Ms May are: a tightening of the accreditation and inspection regime for colleges; a rise in the standard of English required for overseas students enrolling on degree courses; a clampdown on the number of students able to bring dependants; a removal of work rights for those not on courses at publicly funded institutions; and a five-year time limit on student visas for most university students.

The government also said it would close the current post-study work route, which vice-chancellors such as Edward Acton, leader of the University of East Anglia, had highlighted as crucial to maintaining the UK sector's competitiveness.

But in what will be seen as a concession to the academy, non-EU graduates who have offers from sponsoring employers of skilled jobs with a salary of at least £20,000 will be able to stay.

Similarly, the coalition's decision to raise the standard of English required of foreign university applicants may still allow students to continue to improve their language skills at accredited feeder colleges before applying to university.

The row over student visas erupted after Home Office ministers insisted that they wanted to tackle the problem of "bogus colleges", which they claimed were being used as vehicles for immigration.

Ms May said: "It has become very apparent that the old student-visa regime failed to control immigration and failed to protect legitimate students from poor-quality colleges.

"The new system is designed to ensure students come for a limited period, to study not work, and make a positive contribution while they are here."

Universities UK welcomed the proposals, and said that the government had listened to most of its key points.

But the University and College Union said the government had ignored advice from the academy and the Home Affairs Committee, which last week urged it not to introduce measures that could damage the health of the sector.

Sally Hunt, the UCU's general secretary, said the student-visa plans were "short-sighted, and risk sending out the worrying message that the UK is closed for business".

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