Visa regime hurts UK as study destination

Rocketing refusal rates put off international cohort, seminar hears. Rebecca Attwood reports

July 2, 2009

Tough new visa regulations are leading international students to give up on Britain as a place to study, it has been claimed.

Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said that in the first few weeks of the new points-based system for visa applications, refusal rates soared to more than 60 per cent.

"This is not about counterterrorism, it is not about illegal immigration, it is about well-qualified students who have failed on some very small technicality in the application process," he told a Westminster Education Forum seminar in London last week.

"It is sending some very powerful and damaging messages around the world."

Although the proportion of rejections has now dropped to levels similar to last year's, Mr Scott said that "a lot of damage has already been done".

Ian Newbould, president of the American International University in London, warned that the Government was "going to kill a huge industry" if it did not fix the problem.

"There is a real concern that the new border restrictions are going to damage universities," he said.

"We already know of students who have given up coming to Britain ... Visas have been denied for nonsensical reasons.

"The number of stories is quite distressing. All of our colleagues talk about it, and it doesn't appear that a lot is being done."

Mr Scott said visa problems were part of a "battery of hurdles" facing overseas students.

They also had to give biometric details, sometimes travelling thousands of miles to do so with their families, and now had to apply for ID cards, too, he said.

Non-European Union students also had to register with the police, and those who wanted to extend their study in the UK faced a three- to five-month wait without their passports, he added.

Mr Scott said that the education sector needed a "strong voice" on the issue, but the message did not seem to be getting though at the political level.

In the recession there would be pressure on the Government to prevent foreign students from working in the UK, but this had to be resisted, he added.

"We are seeing headlines (such as) 'British jobs for British graduates'. There will be pressure on the Government to restrict the current entitlements, which allow international students to stay on for two years after they have graduated," Mr Scott said.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office denied that the refusal rate for visas ran at more than 60 per cent during the first few months after the rule change.

She added that refusal rates were initially higher than expected, but had now fallen significantly to levels broadly comparable with those last year.

"The student tier of the points-based system ensures that both foreign students and the colleges that bring them over play by the rules," she said.

"The rules are firm but fair," she added.

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