The student immigration system today: a point of view

Blog for members
08 December 2016
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At the Westminster Higher Education Forum on 29 November 2016, Marianne Davies, UKCISA Board member and Head of Immigration Services at the University of Warwick spoke about the evolution of current student immigration policies and offered recommendations on how they might be reformed. The text below is based on her talk.

I have been working in the field of student immigration since 2009, around the time that the Points Based System was first introduced by the Labour government.  From what I observed, although the new system undoubtedly placed educational institutions under intense pressure because for the first time they were required to play a part in immigration control, its objective seemed at least clear – to tackle abuse of the UK immigration system by so-called bogus institutions and to ensure the quality and genuineness of all international students.  The objective nature of a points based system meant that the decision making process on Tier 4 visa applications was fair and equitable.  Provided that Tier 4 sponsors adhered to the new regulations, they felt reassured that the trust of the Home Office would remain with them as the experts in academic assessment and international student recruitment.  Furthermore, the policies themselves did not seem unreasonable - students were expected to have enough money and a sufficient level of English to succeed in their studies whilst institutions were expected to make sure that they were recruiting students with a genuine intention to study based on their academic credentials.

Since 2010, however, the change in tone of the government’s rhetoric on international students has been palpable.  There have been sweeping changes to the UK immigration system since then which have had a significant impact on the UK education sector.  Most regrettably, subjectivity has crept back into the Tier 4 decision making process with the re-introduction of credibility interviewing in 2012. 

Changes to student immigration policy have been complex, often arbitrary and sometimes just plain unfair.  A good example of the unfair nature of some of these changes would be the outright abolition of the Post Study work visa in April 2012.  This left those students who were partway through their studies at that time with much less access to post study work opportunities than they had been led to expect when choosing the UK as their destination of study.  My point is that it would have been much fairer to have phased out this type of visa over a longer period. 

A far more recent example of unfair policy change would be that, as of April of this year, a student who decides to add a year of study abroad in their course must now apply to extend their Tier 4 visa immediately, and from their home country, as if to say that this decision brings their genuineness as a student into question or they should be punished for making this choice – a choice that universities strongly encourage to ensure a truly global experience.

In terms of the challenges that institutions face when navigating and complying with the visa system there are three main aspects:

Firstly, realistically, it is impossible for any Tier 4 sponsor to be fully compliant given the scope and nature of sponsor duties.  It does therefore sometimes feel as if institutions are being set up to fail.  To give an example, the level of a Tier 4 sponsor’s compliance is partly measured by their visa refusal rate which is influenced by a number of factors.  One being the credibility and genuineness of the student which, of course to a great extent, reflects the quality of the institution’s recruitment practices.  Another being the format of the applicant’s bank statements and whether or not the correct level of funds have been held in the account for a period of 28 consecutive days – this being something which is out of the institution’s control and does not in any way reflect the institution’s attitude to, or level of, compliance with their Tier 4 sponsor duties. 

Furthermore, again as part of its Tier 4 sponsor duties, an institution is expected to be aware of every Tier 4 visa refusal received by a student in order to follow up by de-registering that student and reporting this to the Home Office.  However, the Home Office fail to share this information with Tier 4 sponsors.  The same situation applies when a student’s visa is curtailed, or the student switches to a new visa category – Tier 4 sponsors are the last to learn about important changes to the immigration status of those Tier 4 students they are responsible for.

Despite these challenges, institutions feel under intense pressure to be 100% compliant because they feel so vulnerable in the current climate.  In this context, it’s difficult to maintain a balanced approach to dealing with international students to prevent them from feeling targeted.  There is often a conflict of interest between an institution’s own need to comply and what is in the best interests of the student which often leads to an ethical dilemma for that institution.

The second big challenge is that the parameters of what is expected from a Tier 4 sponsor in playing its part in immigration control are unclear and it feels like the goalposts keep moving beyond what is a reasonable expectation.  Taking on the roles of border officials and immigration enforcement officers feels like a step too far.  The proposal to measure Tier 4 sponsors according to exit check data, which will show the percentage of students who leave the UK after their studies, is a good example of these moving goalposts. 

The third biggest challenge is the sheer complexity of student immigration policy and the frequency and poor timing of changes.  On more than one occasion, a policy change which has an impact on how a student is assessed for Tier 4 sponsorship has been introduced at a late stage in the recruitment cycle when offers have already been made to students, causing great distress to those students and putting the institution in an untenable situation.  A good example of this would be the Home Office’s disproportionate response to the Panorama documentary which exposed cheating in two English language testing centres.

So to conclude, I will briefly summarise my proposals for the Home Office in terms of options for reform as follows:

  • Have more realistic expectations of Tier 4 sponsors in terms of the role they can be expected to play in immigration control
  • Adjust net migration targets to reflect that international student numbers represent ‘good’ migration and that the numbers of students should not be limited
  • Make the UK an attractive study destination again by re-introducing post study work opportunities or, at the very least, raise awareness amongst students and employers of the Tier 2 concessions
  • Simplify the rules and policies for Tier 4 students, ensure that they are fair and equitable
  • Develop a two-way relationship with Tier 4 sponsors where possible - consult with them before setting policies and help them to comply better by sharing information with them about their sponsored students
  • And finally, exercise extreme caution with plans to take a differentiated approach so as not to cause division and controversy within the sector whilst devaluing the entire educational offering of UK HE.