Category Archives: UK Immigration News 2012

Concerns Raised as Some Tier 4 Applicants to be Interviewed

Despite already passing a secure English language test, students could be prevented from studying in the UK at the whim of Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs).

As interviews are re-introduced for students to “check their actual ability”, there are growing concerns about whether ECOs are up to the job and if the assessment of a student’s English ability will be universal around the world.

Taking steps to reduce abuse of the student visa route is a good thing. However, not using qualified language assessors raises legitimate concerns. As we previously reported, Damian Green has said: “With more interviews and greater powers to refuse bogus students we will weed out abuse and protect the UK from those looking to play the system.”

Over the next year, it is expected that 14,000 international students applying for Tier 4 visas to study in the UK will be interviewed. This represents around 5% of the expected 250,000 international students. Only a fraction are expected to be interviewed as the UK Border Agency will be targeting regions where the risk of abuse is higher and specifically target students who do not apply to an education provider with highly trusted status. No announcement has been made as to which nationalities will be targeted, but one would expect the Indian Sub-Continent to come under scrutiny, as it has in the past.

It is expected that at interview ECOs will ask applicants about their “immigration and education history, study and post-study plans, and financial circumstances”.

The use of an interpreter will be strictly banned and the theory behind this move is to check that a student’s English language skills match those on the secure English language test certificate submitted in support of their application. Failure to convince the ECO, failure to attend and the need of an interpreter will result in the applicant being rejected.

Applicants must be able to “demonstrate without the assistance of an interpreter” that their English meets the level of the test certificate they have submitted. Failure to do so, and failure to attend interviews, will result in their application being rejected.

Thank said, the UKBA has provided no details as to how the interviews will be conducted nor what training ECOs will receive to make them viable assessors of language ability.

The Chief Executive of Cambridge ESOL, Mike Milanovic – who provides a number of secure English language tests, including the IELTS – said: “Speaking is possibly the most challenging skill to assess. Even when it is carried out by very experienced language teachers, you still need to provide them with specialist training and very detailed instructions.”

“You also need an extensive quality management system to back this up. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to deliver a fair, reliable assessment,” said Milanovic.

The UK Border Agency has hinted that staff may seek guidance from local British Council offices, but no comment has been made by the British Council when asked if they have been asked to provide any kind of training to ECOs.

Secure English language tests were made compulsory for Tier 4 student applicants in 2009 and the level of English required was raised in 2010. At the time, the UK Immigration Minister, Damian Green, said: “Secure English language testing will ensure that we have independent evidence that all education institutions are ensuring their students are capable of following a course delivered in English.”

Does the introduction of English ability checks mean the UK Border Agency no longer has confidence in these secure tests? Regardless, many in the industry do not believe that this step will do anything to reduce abuse of the student visa route.

A research director with World Education Services – which monitors higher-education – said: “Interviews may deter fraudulent applicants to some extent; however, interviews are not only resource intensive but also highly subjective.

“A better approach would be to investigate the sources of frauds. For example, many education agents who are appointed by universities have an incentive to make an applicant look ‘admissible’ by hook or crook. More attention could have been paid to curb risks of fraud at the source.”

London Metropolitan University has Tier 4 Licence Suspended

London Met has had its Tier 4 licence to sponsor international students suspended after failing to fulfil their duties as a Sponsor under the Points Based System.

The suspension came as a direct result of the university’s failure to inform the Home Office of students who didn’t start their courses and happened late July 2012.

This is only the second time that a Highly Trusted, publicly funded university has had their licence suspended. Teeside University’s licence was suspended in early February 2012 amid administrative issues and concerns over international student recruitment. Their Tier 4 licence was reinstated in May.

Glasgow Caledonian University had their Tier 4 licence suspended amid concerns of abuse of the immigration system. Students were found to be working more hours than allowed. This was before the introduction of the Highly Trusted status. Their licence was reinstated after two weeks.

The UK Border Agency raised concerns following two audits of the university and found there were questions to be asked of the university’s data collection and recording, for international students from outside the EU. Further, issues were also identified with regards to student attendance and English language ability. Concerns have been raised over English language testing too.

Despite not having a Tier 4 licence to sponsor students and despite therefore not being able to issue students with a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), which is needed for the student’s visa application, the university has said they will “continue to accept applications from international students over the summer”.

Current students of London Met will not be affected nor will those who have already been granted their visas.

Professor Malcolm Gillies, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, commented: “London Met has worked hard over the last year to rectify previous inadequacies, conducting three of its own audits. It will instantly rectify any residual deficits in its current practice.”

“The University remains a Highly Trusted Sponsor, but its licence is suspended while we resolve remaining issues.”

“London Met and its partners have over 10,000 international students, around 10 per cent of London’s total.  We applaud UKBA’s mission to stamp out visa or compliance abuse and so to support the integrity of British higher education,” he added.

London Metropolitan University is no stranger to controversy although this is the first issue raised with international students studying there. In 2010, the university was ordered to repay £36.5 million after claiming public money for students who didn’t even finish their course. The Higher Education Funding Council for England found serious inaccuracies in data submitted by the university and made the order.

It is claimed an inquiry found that members of the university’s senior management team new full well what was happening and that the London Met had too wide a definition of “completion rate” – the included those students who changed courses or postponed their studies, effectively counting them twice.

The Vice Chancellor and governing body in place during the scandal were allowed to resign.

Students who are planning to study at courses with private colleges whose programmes are accredited by London Metropolitan University should be especially careful until the issue is resolved, as the university is unable to assign and issue CAS statements.

Interviews for Student Visa Applicants to be Re-Introduced

The UK Immigration Minister Damian Green has announced that interviews will be reintroduced for students to “check their actual ability” to benefit from a course of study in the UK.

A pilot has already been running over the past year which supposedly found that 17% of students accepted on a course “actually should be refused” as they don’t even have “basic conversational English”. Following this, the Minister announced the measure would be fully implemented immediately.

This scheme was fast-tracked following comments from a fellow Tory – Julian Brazier – who said that whilst international students were “vital for our universities”, student visas were becoming an “increasingly abused immigration route”.

Mr Brazier said: “Would he agree that the blanket removal of students from the statistics would drive a coach and horses through the excellent measures he’s introduced.”

Mr Green replied: “I’m happy to report to him and the House that as of today we are introducing more widespread interviewing of students to check their actual ability to benefit from a course here.

“We ran a pilot of this between December and February and we discovered that 17% of those who had been accepted on a course in this country actually should be refused because they couldn’t even speak basic conversational English, so there is always more abuse to drive out and we will continue doing so.”

Hugh Bayley of the UK’s Labour Party said that the UK has some of the best universities in the world and international students contribute some £8billion to the British economy.

My Bayley said: “There’s been lots of speculation over the weekend that the Government is about to change the migration figures so as to exclude overseas students. Will the minister make a statement about the Government’s intentions and will he think seriously about what can be done with the visa regime and the language requirements to encourage more genuine students to study in British universities.”

Mr Green replied: “There are no plans at all to change the definition of immigration. A student who comes here for three years or more is as much of an immigrant as somebody who comes on a work visa for two years or more. There’s an international definition of immigration which covers everyone who moves to another country for more than a year, so students who come for more than a year are included in that definition.”

He said 206,176 Tier 4 student visas were issued in the year to March 2012, covering all students including those attending university.

Important Changes for Tier 4 Visa Applicants

The UKBA has recently announced an important change to the Points Based System for applicants seeking further leave to remain. This change will affect students applying under Tier 4.

If an applicant has overstayed their visa by more than 28 days there application will be refused automatically unless there are exceptional mitigating circumstances which caused the application to be late.

The 28 days of overstay is calculated from whichever of the following is the latest:

  • The end of the last period of leave to enter or remain granted
  • The end of any extension of leave
  • The point that a migrant has received written notice of invalidity in relation to an in-time application for further leave to remain

As expected, if an applicant claims that there were exceptional mitigating factors that should be considered, proof will be required. This proof should be submitted with your application.

Exactly what is meant by exceptional mitigating circumstances is not tightly defined and is somewhat dependant on the individual circumstances of the applicant and their application. The threshold has been announced as being very high. In general, exceptional circumstances that are likely to cause unforeseen delays could be:

  • A serious illness
  • Travel (to submit an application) or postal delays
  • Inability to provide required documentation only where this is beyond the applicant’s control. In other words, if the UKBA are at fault or documents are lost to theft, fire or flood, supported with sufficient evidence of the loss, and the date replacements were sought.

International Students, Please Come to the UK – Damian Green

Damian Green has been forced to admit the UK is now on a charm offensive and not against international students coming to study here.

The Minister has admitted this is needed to challenge perceptions that the UK was closed to non-EU students, following serious clampdowns on UK student visas.

“Please come, we have got some of the world’s best universities,” Mr Green said.

The Immigration Minister is under pressure from the academic and business communities to scale back visa restrictions. These groups are calling for international students to be removed from the government’s net migration figures. The UK’s Coalition Government has pledged to reduce net migration from around 250,000 a year today to the “tens of thousands” by 2015.

However, the verdict is still out as the government maintains it is still too early to say with certainty if government policy has significantly damaged UK universities.

“If the thought is out there that we have changed the system to make it more unfriendly then reversing that perception is important,” he added.

Simon Walker, director general of the Institute for Directors, said: “Remarks that are made in Westminster, or around the country, that go do down quite well locally are often on the front page of The Times of India and the New Straits Times the next day, because of the internet, and the impacts on this on perceptions of Britain are quite strong.”

The chief executive of UK Universities – Nicola Dandridge – has stated she’s more than happy to accept the government’s policies in isolation, but it is the combined effect of many little changes which is so damaging. She goes on to argue that Britain is at a real risk of losing out to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“We are viewed as being at the more stringent end of the spectrum and that’s a question of substance as well as perception,” she told MPs.

She said there had been a 10% increase in applications from non-EU students to British universities this year but future projections and “anecdotal” evidence from recruitment fairs suggested the rate of increase would slow.

“The 10% increase, or whatever it may be, is of course positive and it’s wholly welcome but that’s against the background of us having had a very dominant and wonderfully successful market position and we are slipping.

“The international student market is growing and we want to be part of that.”

She said a lot of the increase had come from Chinese students “which is completely wonderful” but they tended to study business and management and there were signs that students from Brazil and India, who tended to study scientific and technical subjects, were increasingly choosing countries that appeared more welcoming.

“We cannot say it’s only the government’s policies but the atmospherics, the way this is playing internationally, which is, I think, causing real problems,” she added.

Mr Green does not accept those arguments as particularly valid, insisting that British universities would not be harmed by government policy. He repeated the government position that the visa restrictions were aimed at closing bogus colleges and reducing competition for jobs for British graduates.

His only concession towards Nicola’s arguments was an acknowledgment that anti-student rhetoric was being poorly received in international higher education markets. He went on to say that “a lot” of work was being done to change that perception.

“And it’s slightly swimming against the tide because, if the thought is out there that we have changed the system to make it more unfriendly, then reversing that perception is important and difficult but very, very essential.

“We have changed the system to cut out the abuse, we have changed the system to skew it towards the best students, skew it towards universities.

“But doing that at the same time as cutting out abuse is a nuanced message to send out.”

He said now that the changes were in place “I think the sensible thing to do is to let the system bed down while we relentlessly go round the world saying the brightest students and the best are as welcome as ever to Britain”.

How do the UK’s Competitors Count International Students?

Much has been said about the UK’s counting of international students in net migration figures. Whilst there are some reports that the Prime Minister – amongst others, most notably Vince Cable – are concerned with the effect this is having on the UK economy, how do other countries count student migrants?

And more importantly, with the UK’s education sector losing market share to its competitors, how do they count student migrants?

This issue is interesting as all countries are required to report net migration figures to the UN, with a single definition of what a migrant is. The government has argued it can’t remove international students from net migration figures as they claim to be bound by the UN definition of net migration. It should be made clear that no-one is asking the government to change the definition, but as we will explore in this article, several countries don’t count students as being migrants as they are temporary by nature. They are only included in the count if they switch immigration category to a long-term or permanent one, such as for work or settlement.

The UK’s reporting of these figures is unique in that they lump international students with highly skilled workers, family migration, European migration and refugees. How can the UK have any kind of granular understanding of the migration figures when they are reported in such a way?

Several pressure groups are calling on government to make this change. But what happens in other countries?

The United States of America

America has two sources of data concerning migration. Producing estimates of net international migration is the responsibility of the United States Census Bureau, and are based on the following:

  • Immigration of the foreign born
  • Emigration of the foreign born
  • Net migration between the United States and Puerto Rico
  • Net migration of natives to and from the United States
  • Net movement of the Armed Forces population to and from the United States

The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for producing permanent immigration statistics. Whilst it is clear that the US Census Bureau counts international students under the immigration / emigration of the foreign born categories, they are not by the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, international students are classified as non-immigrant admissions alongside tourists, business travellers and those involved with cultural exchange programmes.

The Department of Homeland Security also has an additional category for legal permanent residents. These are people who have been issued green cards. Refugees, asylum seekers and those who have naturalised are counted separately.

It should be obvious then that the UN definition of a migrant has no bearing on the migration statistics produced by the United States. Their stats are simply interesting in whether someone is foreign born or not, or whether a particular migrant is in the US on a permanent or temporary basis, as denoted by the immigration category they have applied under.

Australia

Australia does in fact count the number of international student arrivals in estimates of total net overseas migration but they are however included as net temporary arrivals. Others in this category include temporary skilled workers, tourists, visitors and working holiday makers.

Australia counts net permanent arrivals separately, which includes employer-sponsored workers and arrivals under the Humanitarian Programs. It counts returning citizens, permanent residents and citizens from New Zealand settling in Australia as net other arrivals. This provides a highly granular look at the figures.

More importantly, Australia’s presentation of net migration figures is not based on the UN migrant definition. Instead, Australia categorises migrants strictly on a temporary or permanent basis.

Canada

It is the job of Citizenship and Immigration Canada to produce annual statistics on immigration. These data is split by different temporary and permanent categories. International students are counted as temporary.

A separate body, Statistics Canada, performs its own calculation on net migration in the following way:

net international migration = immigrants – (emigrants + net temporary emigrants) + net non-permanent residents + returning emigrants

So, Canada counts international students in the overall net calculations, but students are categorised in the non-permanent resident category, along with foreign workers, humanitarian workers and other temporary residents. As a result, students are not counted as long-term immigrants.

Again, it should be apparent that the UN migrant definition has no influence on Canada’s presentation of immigration statistics. A distinction is made based on the class of visa a migrant holds, much like the USA and Australia. Canada defines immigrants as those who were born outside of Canada, excluding temporary foreign workers, Canadian citizens born outside Canada and those with student or working visas6. Non-permanent residents are persons holding a work or study permit or refugee claimants.

New Zealand

New Zealand is special case in that they are trying to reverse the trend of net emigration. Indeed, New Zealand is actively looking to expand its numbers of international students.

Therefore it is of little significance – from a policy perspective – that New Zealand reports immigration figures in a similar way to the UK. New Zealand reports numbers of permanent and long-term arrivals – defined as people from overseas arriving to live in New Zealand for 12 months or more (including permanently), and New Zealanders returning after an absence of 12 months or more overseas.

English UK Supports Softening of Immigration Figures

English UK welcomes the recommendation by a committee of MPs that the Government should exclude students from its net migration target.

The Home Affairs Committee says it is important that the UK does not fall behind its international competitors by becoming a less attractive option for international students. It also recommends that all students should be interviewed “where it is practical and appropriate to do so.”

Tony Millns, chief executive of English UK, which represents more than 450 fully-accredited state and private schools, colleges and universities, welcomed the MPs’ adoption of a proposal first made in International Students and Net Migration in the UK, a report published by the IPPR think-tank in May on a commission from English UK.

“If the Government were to take the sensible option, and remove students from the net migration figures — as do our key competitors in the international education market, the USA, Australia and Canada — then that must include all those on Tier 4 student visas,” he said.

“We know that most international students tend to progress to UK universities from preparatory courses (especially in English language learning) here, so it is vital to make those students feel welcome as well.”

Mr Millns did not support the MPs’ other recommendation that all students should face interviews by entry clearance officers. He said there was “no evidence” that such interviews were any kind of a safeguard: “In fact the problem of bogus students was at its worst when all student visa applicants were interviewed.”

Is Mr Cameron Softening on Students and Immigration Figures?

The UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has finally begun to acknowledge the impact that visa restrictions are having on students and the British economy.

Expressing concern that “wealthy foreigners” could be prevented from studying in British universities, Mr Cameron is now considering removing students from the net migration count. Remember that the government has pledged to cut immigration from outside the EU to the tens of thousands and it seems there is a real struggle to achieve this goal before the next election, 2015. Currently, annual net migration to the UK stands at an all-time high of 250,000 per year.

This sets Mr Cameron at loggerheads with his Immigration Minister, Damian Green, who in May 2012 rejected the idea of excluding students from the count as massaging the figures. It seems that the wealth of campaign work has begun to sink in, with the Home Office themselves admitting that the cap on students is costing the economy £2.6 billion.

A Downing Street source told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper: “The Prime Minister understands these arguments and is definitely considering a change of policy.”

We await an announcement, but won’t hold our breaths!

It seems there is wide support for such a move. Both Conservative and Labour MPs have raised the issue and there is talk of trying to build cross party support for the issue.

Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi and Labour MP Paul Blomfield said there was a “growing perception abroad that in terms of higher education, Britain is closed for business.”

They added: “Recent changes to the student visa system have unfortunately broadcast the message that foreign students are unwelcome. We’ve already seen a dramatic fall in students coming from traditional markets such as India.”

No one denies that the Government has a right – no, a duty – to crack down on bogus students, but the current crackdown has meant that, “genuine students are getting caught in the net. Our borders policy should not be in competition with our growth policy,” said the MPs.

They pointed out that Australia has been through a similar experience – first tightening the rules on visas for foreign students, and then relaxing them.

Mr Zahawi and Mr Blomfield conclude: “The Government will not act as long as it fears the charge of ‘fiddling the figures’. Above all it would send out a positive message to prospective students throughout the world – you are welcome in the UK.”

UKBA’s Mapping of CEFR and IELTS Called in Question in Court

An interesting appeal was recently heard involving a Tier 4 Student whose application was refused for the sole reason that they did not meet B2 of the Common European Framework for Language Learning (B2) in all four language components: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Whilst there are various ways a Tier 4 Student can demonstrate their English language level, this appeal concerned the use of an IELTS certificate. The student achieved a score of 5.0 in two skills and 6.0 in the others. The United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) took the view that CEFR B2 is equivalent to IELTS 5.5. The UKBA concluded that the student did not meet this level and therefore refused the application.

The UKBA has done what it usually does, ‘hiding’ their assessment of how IELTS scores map to CEFR in a guidance document outside the Immigration Rules (sound familiar? Read on and found out why!).

It’s important to note that the UKBA is very careful in its use of language to describe their approval not accreditation of education providers when issuing Tier 4 sponsor licenses. Obviously, this is because the UKBA is not in the business of education, but rather immigration, and is therefore in no position to accredit anything in the world of education. It is therefore quite funny that they do not take this approach when deciding how IELTS scores should correspond to the CEFR.

As previously stated, the UKBA’s guidance states that CEFR B2 is equivalent to IELTS 5.5. However, a little bit of deeper research clearly shows this to be wrong. Who better to ask how the IELTS scores map to the CEFR than the exam provider themselves? A quick scan of the IELTS website provides some eye-opening details, namely that B2 is equivalent to an IELTS score range of 5.0 – 6.5. See the image below from the IELTS website mapping their scores to the CEFR:

Mapping IELTS Scores to CEFR

Also contained on the IELTS website is some text of note:

Specifying the relationship between a test product and the CEFR is challenging because, in order to function as a framework, the CEFR is deliberately underspecified (Davidson & Fulcher, 2007; Milanovic, 2009; Weir, 2005). Establishing the relationship is also not a one-off activity, but rather involves the accumulation of evidence over time (e.g. it needs to be shown that test quality and standards are maintained). (…)

As IELTS preceded the CEFR, IELTS band scores have never aligned exactly with the CEFR transition points.  The new table makes this clearer.

I therefore ask again: who better to ask what CEFR B2 is equivalent to under the IELTS framework than the exam provider and their researchers?

Armed with these facts, it was argued at the student’s appeal that the UKBA’s guidance on IELTS/CEFR B2 equivalency could not be relied upon. This is exactly what was found in the now in-famous Pankina case: UKA guidance could not be said to be an “extant and accessible outside source” [Para 26]. The outcome would surely have been different had the Immigration Rules or Guidance document had referred to an outside source, but they do not. The Guidance document simply states (incorrectly) what IELTS scores the UKBA considers to be CEFR B2.

Unsurprisingly, the judge agreed with what was presented above and the appeal was allowed.

From the perspective of international students, it’s sad that the language requirement has been implemented in such a complex, confusing and convoluted way, regardless of whether or not a pre-visa English language requirement is suitable or not. Yes there are bogus. Yes there are bogus students, but the majority are in fact hard-working students, who make good progress in their studies and are a benefit both to the UK and their home communities.

Newer, Tougher Post Study Work Criteria in Force Shortly

From 6 April 2012, tougher rules will be in force for those international students seeking to continue to remain in the UK through the post study work route (Tier 1). Announced last month by Damian Green – the UK’s Immigration Minister, the changes are cited as aiming to ensure only the brightest and best students remain in the UK following their studies.

The new post study work rules will see permission granted to remain in the UK for work purposes only given to those who have graduated from a university will be earning at least 20,000 and have secured a job offer from an employer accredited by the UK Border Agency.

 

The new rules have a heavy ‘benefit the British economy’ slant and aim to:

Promote Growth

1,000 places will be offered to students who will be working on world-class innovations in the UK but do not qualify for the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route.

Boost the Economy

If students have 50,000 to invest in a business, they will be permitted to remain in the UK following their studies.

Ensure Students can Maintain Themselves

Maintenance requirements were first introduced in 2008 and are now being overhauled. Students, working migrants and dependants will have to demonstrate access to higher levels of funding than before.

Reduce Abuse

Courses combing study and work and at below degree level have now had the work portion of the course capped at one-third the total duration of the course. Further, the time spent studying at degree level has now been capped at a maximum of 5 years.

Damian Green said:

‘It is vital that we continue to attract the brightest and the best international students, but we have to be more selective about who can come here and how long they can stay.

‘In the past, too many students have come to the UK to work rather than study, and this abuse must end. With the introduction of the Graduate Entrepreneur route and the restrictions on student work, we are reforming the system to deliver immigration to benefit Britain.’