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UK: Student visa regulations tightened

True to a November 2010 promise of working to introduce a “more selective and more robust” student visa scheme (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, November 2010), Home Secretary Theresa May delivered a speech to parliament on 22 March 2011 outlining a series of new proposals designed to “restore some sanity” to the UK student visa system. The reforms are designed to address what the government claims has been a breakdown of immigration controls on the one hand and, on the other hand, a failure of protections for foreign students from poor quality UK institutions.

Specifically, the Home Office now proposes action in four main areas. The first is an accreditation framework, whereby institutions interested in recruiting international students must be vetted by an “approved inspectorate” and deemed “Highly Trusted Sponsors”. Second, requirements for entry into the country will be strengthened, including more rigorous evidence of financial support for study. Assessment of English language skills – particularly for degree-level study – will also factor more explicitly into the visa eligibility criteria. Third, student “entitlements”, such as work benefits, will also be reduced in a number of ways, and only postgraduate students at universities and government-sponsored students will be eligible to be accompanied by dependants. Finally, the Post Study Work route will close from April 2012 and “only those graduates who have an offer of a skilled graduate level job from an employer who is licensed by the UK Border Agency will be allowed to stay”. Furthermore, such post-study employment must include an annual salary of GBP 20 000 (EUR 22 771). A special exception is envisioned to allow “innovative student entrepreneurs who are creating wealth” to stay on to pursue their ideas.

The government hopes these new measures will reduce the number of student visas issued by 25% (or 70 000 to 80 000), and increase the outflow from the country of (all but the best) foreign students who have completed their studies, while still maintaining the UK’s privileged position as a top destination for internationally-mobile students. To be sure, there are critics of, and concerns about, these developments. Indeed, a Home Affairs Committee report on the subject of student visa reform was released just five days before the Home Secretary’s statement to parliament, and urged caution in several key areas, notably the plan to discontinue the Post Study Work route and the suggested English language requirements. It also questioned the very fitness of purpose of the migration data used for such policy decision-making. Meanwhile, the higher education community braces itself for (uncertain) impact. On the one hand, universities may not be so directly affected by the measures. However, an indirect impact may be felt through repercussions on enrolment at institutions (i.e. private colleges) that often feed foreign students up the pipeline. Too, bad publicity worries everyone concerned about sending a “closed for business” signal to the rest of the world. One way or another, implementation of the new rules is expected to be phased in three stages, with new rules made public in the next several weeks.

UK Home Office

UK Parliament, Home Affairs Committee