Radical reform to student visas is required for UK higher education

The government’s tinkering with red tape is welcome but it won’t be enough to overcome Covid-19 uncertainty, says James Pitman

July 19, 2020
Beijing airport

Across the world, international students are making last minute decisions about whether to enrol in university courses this September or defer until 2021.

But study destination countries are responding differently to this challenge. Australian universities have indicated that they will allow international students to enter the country before all internal state borders have opened. Meanwhile, the US government has only just reversed its initial decision to deny international students the right to remain in the country if their classes went entirely online. This U-turn only came after international education bodies such as NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, spoke out against policies harmful to the interests of international students, and institutions such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched legal action.

Across the Atlantic, the Indian Students and Alumni Association reports that 95 percent of Indian students considering the UK do not wish to defer, although other source countries remain unconvinced. Any deferment is as good as losing the student this year, and for UK universities facing domestic caps, reduced numbers of students from the European Union and uncertain term start dates, the loss of international students may end up being the proverbial straw.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But to succeed, the UK needs to offer students as much Tier 4 flexibility as possible. Other measures are also needed to ensure international study remains attractive. Former universities minister Jo Johnson has advocated doubling the length of the post-study work visa, but this doesn’t go far enough.

Standard Tier 4 visas require students to meet minimum in-person teaching requirements and, while these have been temporarily waived given travel bans, it is unclear what the government plans to do in the long term.

Enrolling this year most likely means moving from online learning to on-campus at some point, but this is unprecedented – and there is no visa guidance for this scenario giving absolute certainty that the student can enter the UK when that becomes possible.

The official government launch of the new Graduate Immigration Route, enabling graduates to work in UK for two years and PhD students for three, is very much welcomed, but should go further.

Small tweaks to red tape processes could also make a difference. The government is also currently allowing students to renew, extend or switch visa category in the UK without having to return home. However, this option is set to expire on 31 July. The deadline will probably be pushed to September, but the government must consider removing this arbitrary restriction permanently.

English language testing is another challenge that too often stands between international students and a high-quality British education. Testing centres are yet to open at full capacity in China and several other countries and roughly 300,000 Chinese students cannot proceed with their aspirations to study abroad. While IELTs scores are required for those applying for a Tier 4 student visa, the UK Visas and Immigration service currently allows students to spend up to 11 months on a short-term study visa without proof of language ability. This flexibility means that students can begin studying in the UK even if IELTS and other language testing centres remain closed. This provision should be expanded to include all types of study.

Even when the language testing centres do reopen, there will be insufficient resources to deal with the backlog. Permanently allowing students to transfer from a short-term study visa to a Tier 4 visa would be highly sensible and should be implemented within weeks.

A fresh look at the Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) system should be encouraged. The current situation, in which a CAS is tied to the institution that issued it, is too limiting. In the increasingly likely event that higher education providers merge or partner, international students may be left without recourse, so the government must lift this institutional dependency to ensure students don’t have to worry about course completion whatever happens.

The UK has a historic opportunity to make clear its credentials as the world’s study destination of choice, globally open and intellectually exciting. But to do so demands more than fresh marketing. It needs empathy for the issues that matter to international students themselves, demonstrated in practical measures. This means that the Home Office must move quickly to prevent students – who are already understandably wary – from choosing to defer.

It should be prepared to think radically. A single long-term, flexible, study visa to cover the whole student journey would be the best solution for all stakeholders. We should do it now.

James Pitman is Study Group’s managing director for UK and Europe and chair of Exporting Education UK.

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