An Investigation into Student Visitors – Summary

Research Report into UK Student Visitors (Migration and Border Analysis, Home Office Science)


The student visitor route was introduced in 2007 and allows people to visit the UK to undertake a short course of study for up to six months.

The Government has recently reformed the Tier 4 student route to attract and retain the brightest and the best students, whilst also reducing abuse. In the context of these changes, there has been debate on the student visitor route. The aim of this study is to develop the evidence base on student visitors and establish if this short term study route is being used as intended. This report will inform future decisions taken by the Home Office in relation to the route.

The study examines non-visa national and visa national student visitors, as well as those who applied for a student visit visa but were unsuccessful. Key areas of interest covered in the report include the characteristics of courses student visitors are undertaking, the type of the institutions they are attending, and their immigration histories.

Unlike students seeking entry under Tier 4 of the Points-Based System, student visitors do not have to be formally sponsored by an educational institution, but they must attend an institution that is accredited to provide education. Student visitors may take any course of six months or less in duration but cannot undertake work or work experience placements, bring dependants or switch to another immigration category whilst in the UK.

Visa nationals require entry clearance while non-visa nationals can apply for entry at the port in the UK. Entry Clearance Officers and Border Force Officers have discretionary powers to refuse a visa and/or entry if they are not satisfied that the applicant is a genuine student visitor.

The most recent statistics on entry to the UK show that during 2011, 262,000 student visitors came to the UK. Most of these student visitors were from non-visa countries (186,150), including 115,000 from the US. More recent statistics on visas issued show 68,372 student visit visas were issued during 2012. This included Russians (10,246), Chinese (9,190) and Turkish nationals (7,621). The number of student visitor arrivals has been increasing each year, and increased by 9 per cent from 2010 to 2011.

These figures include the extended student visitor route (permitting entry for up to 11 months for the study of English language courses) introduced in January 2011 and for which both visa and non-visa nationals are required to gain prior entry clearance. This route, however, is not covered in the scope of the report.


Visa nationals

A sample of 750 successful and 306 unsuccessful student visit visa applications was drawn from the Central Reference System (the database where visa applications are recorded
and processed) for the period 1 June 2011 to 31 May 2012. A systematic random sampling method was used to ensure the sample was representative.

Non-visa nationals

A sample of 947 student visitor arrivals was surveyed at Heathrow in November 2012 in a pilot exercise. Border Force Officers were asked to complete a pro forma for each non-visa national arrival answering questions about the applicant’s intentions for their stay in the UK. Due to the nature of the sample design, the sample is not representative of the population as a whole but gives an indication of the usage of the route.


The evidence suggests the student visitor route is being used as intended and abuse is minimal.

Non-visa nationals and visa nationals: successful applicants

  • Around two-thirds of both visa and non-visa national student visitors (64% and 62% respectively) were coming to the UK to study an English language course. Other popular courses included exchange programmes – this applied to 85 per cent of US nationals in the non-visa sample.
  • The majority of student visitors in the sample were coming to study at institutions on the Tier 4 Register (87% of non-visa nationals and 90% of visa nationals). No student visitors were admitted to attend institutions where the Tier 4 licence had been revoked due to a breach of sponsorship obligations.
  • Most student visitors were studying for less than three months. The median length of courses studied was eight weeks in length for non-visa nationals and four weeks for visa nationals. In both samples, students reported staying in the UK for a similar time as the length of their course.
  • Nationalities: The majority of sampled non-visa national student visitors were Brazilian (35%) or US nationals (27%), with a further 17 per cent of the sample being Japanese, and 7 per cent Korean. For visa nationals, around two-thirds of successful applicants were from the top five nationalities (Russians, Chinese, Turkish, Saudi Arabians and Indians).
  • Course fees: The median course fee for sampled non-visa national student visitors was £2,308. Visa nationals on average paid less (median of £1,457). Most (72%) of the successful applicants for a student visit visa paid some costs towards their course before applying for a visa.
  • Qualifications studied for: The majority of courses taken by both visa and non-visa national student visitors did not lead to a qualification with equivalence to the National Qualification Framework (NQF). However, almost one-third of the non-visa sample, including 89 per cent of US national student visitors were studying courses leading to qualifications equivalent to degree level (NQF levels 6–8).
  • Previous visits: A minority (7%) of non-visa nationals reported previous dates they had come to the UK as a student visitor. Of visa nationals, 19 per cent of successful applicants reported having studied in the UK previously.
  • Immigration histories: Less than one per cent of successful applicants for student visit visas had been refused entry to the UK in the previous ten years.

Unsuccessful applicants for a student visit visa

  • Background and intentions: The unsuccessful visa applicants were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as successful visa applicants (17% compared with 7%), and those in employment had a lower net monthly income than successful applicants (median £610 compared with £1,000). Additionally, the intended length of course and stay in the UK were considerably longer for unsuccessful applicants (median course length 58 days and trip length 77 days compared with medians of 27 days and 29 days for successful applicants).
  • Courses and institutions: Unsuccessful applicants were more likely to propose studying English language courses (74% compared with 64% for successful visa applicants) and less likely to propose to attend institutions on the Tier 4 Register (79% compared with 90% for successful visa
  • Reasons for refusal: In around one-half of all cases each of the following reasons were given (where each case may have been given more than one reason): insufficient documents or
    information submitted with the application; doubt over the applicant’s intention to leave at the end of their studies; doubt over the applicant genuinely coming to the UK to study and belief they may be coming to seek work; and doubt over the availability of funds to cover the costs related to coming to the UK to study.

Part 1 of 5

Part 1 – Summary
Part 2 – Introduction
Part 3 – Non-visa nationals
Part 4 – Visa nationals: successful applicants
Part 5 – Visa nationals: unsuccessful applicants

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