The British industry showed extraordinary dynamism and motivation last year when Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced in November that there was to be an unexpected review of the student visa system, with a number of new proposals put forward to prevent bogus immigrants entering the country.
In fact, the proposals amounted to a full-scale assault on the international education sector and industry bodies were given just 10 days to respond to specific proposals set out by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). Hundreds of stakeholders lobbied MPs, signed a petition and returned submissions.
Among the proposals was a suggestion that the minimum level of study permissible on a student would be raised from NQF level 3 to level 4 – meaning all foundation and A-level preparation programmes would no longer be able to recruit non-European nationals who require a student visa.
Susan De-Jesus, City College Brighton’s International Welfare Advisor said, “if all of the questions raised in the review were implemented, we would simply have no international students. Many of our courses are preparing international students for university in the UK. How would these students no prepare for university in the UK?”
And James Pitman, Managing Director at Study Group for Higher Education in Europe commented, “this is the biggest attack on the international education sector ever. If full implementation [went ahead] then we would no longer be a viable company in the UK.”
More particularly posing a huge impact to the English language teaching sector was a suggestion that the current minimum requirement of English ability for student visa issuance – CEFR level A2 – be raised further.
Tony Millns, Chief Executive of English UK, wrote in an extensive submission, “given all other controls suggested, we see no reason to introduce such a restriction and note that no other major English-speaking destination country has such a policy. To introduce it would have disastrous consequences in public diplomacy terms because it would lead to the almost total exclusion of students from countries such as Saudi Arabia.”
Millns forecast that if all proposals were adopted, the cost could be over UK£2 billion in lost revenue. Other points concerned access to vocational courses; a differential approach for countries with high-risk status; work rights; and a limit on progression through the education system without returning students returning to their home country.
The other proposal causing real concern was the part-time work rights for non-EU students be revoked. This anti-competitive measure would put the UK at a disadvantage to Ireland and Australia, for example.
Janey Futerill, Principal of King Street College in London said that her school would be out of business within six months should this become law: “I would think it would be the same for any school in our price bracket serving the same student demographic…with many student nationalities that need to work to support themselves,” she said.
The review was ordered in a political climate of concern over negative immigration headlines, but industry bodies were keen to point out that the new Points Based System, which rolls out the IT-based sponsor management system in February, had not had enough time to be sufficiently fine-tuned. Millns acknowledged that the system wasn’t perfect and strongly advocated for an improvement in assessing financial eligibility, as well as a “trusted partner” scheme for education agents, to ensure no systematic abuse of the visa system in applicants’ home countries.
“We warned [that a rule requiring evidence of funds in the bank account for 28 days prior to application] constituted a loophole open to obvious abuse,” he wrote. “There could be much more reliance placed on the payment of course fees in advance, because that places the applicant at a greater degree of commitment and risk.” He also suggested an alternative option of paying fees into a central fund prior to application, which could be then transferred to a candidate’s institution upon successful visa issuance.
The Government is expected to make an announcement in early 2010.