Willetts offers fuzzy logic as visa changes draw fire

Minister restates need for change as MPs, v-cs and think tank highlight harms, writes Sarah Cunnane

March 10, 2011

The fraught issue of proposed changes to the UK's student visa system continued to be discussed in a week of debates, reports and parliamentary scrutiny.

The public consultation on the government's plans ended last month, having attracted more than 30,000 responses. There are concerns that by restricting Tier 4 student visas, the government risks damaging the UK's standing in the international student market.

Fears have also been raised that non-European Union students may lose the right to work in the UK, and that foreign graduates may be barred from applying for post-study work.

Speaking last week at a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, restated his commitment "to finding a solution that does not damage international standing". But he also made clear why the government wanted change: "We do believe there are abuses and loopholes that mean, sadly, there are people getting in who shouldn't be here."

Mr Willetts said that when he talked about abuses, he had in mind not the "absurd" cases cited by detractors but rather a "blurred division between those who study and go home and those who stay". An example of this "fuzziness", he said, would be a student who comes to the UK with dependants and uses the student visa for a partner to get a job.

This earned Mr Willetts a rebuke from Keith Vaz, Labour chair of the committee, who said: "You are not a marriage guidance counsellor; you are a business minister. You should have sorted out this 'fuzziness' before putting a policy to the public."

In a separate event last week, John Denham, Labour shadow business secretary, held a seminar at Parliament to discuss responses from higher and further education bodies to the proposed changes.

He said he felt that the potential scale of the damage to the higher education sector had been underplayed, while also acknowledging failings in the political discourse.

"We have perhaps been guilty in the past of talking about (higher education) as if it were a product that we successfully sell to other people and (that changes would mean) we end up selling less of it," he said. "It would, in fact, completely change the capability of our institutions."

Steve Smith, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said he felt that the government had not thought beyond statistics.

"The government proposes to cut (immigration) numbers by correlating them with the percentages that come in under the various routes," he said. "Since 60 per cent come in under the student route, 60 per cent of the savings are expected to be made there. It hasn't started with the problem; it's started with the methodology."

A report on student immigration was launched this week by the think tank CentreForum. Pathway to Prosperity: Making Student Immigration Work for Universities and the Economy argues that in their current form, the government's plans would "harm higher education and the whole economy by blocking genuine students from the UK".


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