by Nichola Carter, partner at Penningtons

The government is currently reviewing around 30,000 responses to its consultation on international student migration, which closed on 31 January. It will shortly announce a raft of new policy measures in this area aimed at substantially reducing student immigration and tackling widespread abuse of the system.

In her foreword to the consultation document the home secretary, Theresa May, acknowledges that in higher education alone, international student expenditure, both on and off campus, approaches £5bn.

Other estimates put the figure much higher.

It is not surprising therefore that the home secretary confirmed that the changes proposed seek to ‘ensure that our high-quality institutions remain able to attract genuine students from overseas...’

The government has proposed the following measures:

  • allow only establishments that have ‘Highly Trusted Status’ to offer courses that are below degree level to adults;
  • raise the English language bar;
  • require students to return to their home country after their course has ended if they wish to apply to study another course;
  • close tier 1 post-study work route;
  • limit ability to work and bring dependents;
  • have simplified visa application procedures for ‘low risk’ nationalities; and
  • tighten the accreditation regime.

There will always be undesirable individuals who try and gain entry to the UK by posing as visitors, students, workers, and so on, and it is the role of the UK Border Agency to have in place sophisticated and effective measures to capture such individuals.

However, in March 2009 when the last government introduced the tier 4 category, it removed the ability of experienced immigration officers at ports and visa posts to assess whether or not an individual was likely to be seeking entry to the UK for genuine purposes or for illegal reasons.

Instead it transferred the responsibility for making this extremely important decision to administrators in educational establishments who had no experience of dealing with such people.

While allowing this gaping weakness in the system to remain, the present government has continued the trend of labelling as abusers of the system bona fide educational establishments which, for instance, do not take copies of flight tickets of students when they depart, even though this is not a requirement.

They also label as abusers those that accept onto courses Romanian and Bulgarian students, even though it is perfectly legal for them to do so, and those that do not sign a copy of a passport when there is no requirement for them to do so.

At the same time it is becoming clear that the net migration data to which the government refers is not fit for purpose and the aim of reducing net migration is nonsensical in practical terms.

There is growing anger that, in its efforts to be seen to be controlling the immigration statistics, the government is ignoring reality in terms of international students and is embarking on a journey that will cause substantial damage to the UK’s economy and reputation as a world-leader in education.

In the last week both the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Higher Education Policy Institute have published reports setting out that:

  • the evidence the government is relying on in the net migration debate to justify its proposals relating to international students is wholly unreliable;
  • the issue of ‘abuse’ in the student system is vastly exaggerated and can be dealt with effectively by changes to the accreditation system; and
  • if the proposals are implemented this will have serious negative implications for the UK’s economy and reputation.

Leading players in the education sector such as Universities UK, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the National Union of Students, the Association of MBAs, the British Council, English UK and many others have all expressed significant concern that the government’s proposals are going to deter genuine students from coming to the UK.