Visa crisis harms UK, Blair told

March 11, 2005

For political bedfellows Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock it will have been an uncomfortable conversation. But for universities, this week's discussion between the Prime Minister and the British Council chairman is nothing short of a crisis meeting.

Just as mounting evidence points to falling numbers of overseas students enrolling at UK universities, the future of the Government's marketing campaign for promoting universities abroad has been thrown into uncertainty.

What is particularly galling for those involved in what up to now has been one of the sector's success stories is that a few decisions over relatively small amounts of money could threaten billions of pounds of overseas investment in the UK.

In his first meeting with Mr Blair in his British Council role, Mr Kinnock yesterday called for a second phase of the Prime Minister's Initiative - a high-profile campaign that has helped attract an additional 75,000 overseas students to the UK over the past five years.

Personally backed by Mr Blair, the scheme was not only about securing a big slice of the lucrative overseas student market; it was seen as a way of nurturing links with countries led by former visitors to UK universities.

British Council communications manager Christopher Wade said the issue would be discussed at the meeting in the context of broader diplomatic issues: "The current programme has delivered significant value for the investment made, and its continuation is essential for the future health of HE and FE in the UK and building long-term relationships with people who hold positions of influence overseas."

Crucially, the PMI was also seen as a way of coordinating efforts of the many different Whitehall departments involved in this important strategic area.

Yet it appears to have been forgotten by civil servants: government funding for the PMI - a total of just £5 million - runs out at the end of this month.

It comes as university heads blame a decline in overseas admissions on the Home Office's decisions last month to raise charges for student visas and to introduce stricter visa regulations.

One in three universities has reported a drop in overseas student enrolments this year, according to research from Universities UK.

The vice-chancellors' umbrella group said that UK universities make £1.25 billion a year from the tuition fees paid by overseas students. This group also brings £10.2 billion to the UK economy. The "hard won" popularity of the sector among foreign students "will be easily lost" unless action is taken, UUK added.

"The reduction in international student numbers we've seen this year is a wake-up call," a spokesman said, after UUK's spring conference of vice-chancellors in Manchester last week.

A charge of £155 was introduced for visa extensions in 2003, and the charge has now been doubled. Stricter visa procedures have also led to more students being refused entry to the UK.

The survey of more than 70 universities found that some institutions reported missing targets by up to 500 students.

The concerns are backed up by figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Applications from outside the European Union fell by 5.3 per cent from 24,388 in 2003-04 to 23,096 in 2004-05. Applications from China fell by 25.8 per cent, and from Hong Kong by 6.3 per cent.

Vice-chancellors said that the strength of sterling, high fees, the cost of living in the UK and increasing competition for international students globally were contributing to the decline. But they put visa problems at the top of their list. Individual universities meanwhile are considering whether to pay for the visa fees themselves to ensure they do not alienate overseas students.

UUK said it was pressing for a review of the effects of Government plans to double charges for student visa extensions while the heads of the 30 colleges and institutes that make up the University of London confirmed this week that they had joined forces with the University of London students union to call on the Home Secretary to abandon the plans.

Mr Wade said there were concerns that nearly doubling visa extension charges to up to £500 will also hit the 43,000 postgraduate overseas students in the UK. "For the sake of the UK's international reputation, anything that affects their perception of us as a nation that is hospitable is of concern to us," he said.

Mr Blair is understood to have asked education ministers to sort out future funding of his initiative.

Tony Tysome@thes.co.uk

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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