UK universities have been forced to stop recruiting international students from parts of the world that the Home Office considers to be a high risk for immigration offences, a conference heard.
Mostafa Rajaai, the National Union of Students’ international students’ officer, told a Westminster Higher Education Forum event that the move amounted to “racial discrimination” in the eyes of applicants.
Attendees heard that a number of universities were not offering places to students from some areas because they feared that their visa applications would be rejected, tipping institutions towards the 10 per cent refusal threshold after which they face losing their sponsorship licence.
Institutions have reported a substantial increase in refusals on grounds of “credibility”, and the event was told that applicants from areas of Nigeria, Pakistan and India were considered to be a particular risk.
Mr Rajaai said that rejecting visa applications because previous students from the same area had failed to go home at the end of their courses was “very unfair”.
“A lot of universities are now not offering places to students from certain countries, especially Pakistan and Nigeria,” he said. “Prospective students from these countries have a very negative view of the UK now. They think this is racial discrimination.”
Pat Saini, head of the immigration team at legal firm Pennington Manches, claimed that some universities had little choice in the matter.
“Some universities were told by the Home Office to stop recruiting from certain regions, mainly in Pakistan,” she said.
Nearly 250,000 credibility interviews have been conducted with non-European Union prospective students in the past two years, according to government figures, refusing visas to 9 per cent of applicants over the period.
But the refusal rate has reduced over time, from a high of 15 per cent in the first quarter of 2014 to 5 per cent in the second quarter of 2015.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ mission group, told the event that one explanation for the drop was the withdrawal of universities from certain markets.
Speaking afterwards, she said universities feared “partial” Home Office decisions. “This is rational behaviour by universities but it is not good for international higher education exports and UK soft power,” she said.