UK: Crackdown on foreign student visas

The Home Office has introduced stringent new rules for overseas students seeking to study in the UK. Alan Johnson, Labour's Home Secretary, announced last Sunday that applicants would have to speak passable English and those on short courses would not be allowed to bring in dependants. Those on non-degree courses would be allowed to work 10 hours a week instead of 20. Visas for non-degree courses would be granted to institutions that are on a new register, The Highly Trusted Sponsors List.

The changes follow criticism of a points system introduced last March. Students were allocated 30 points for being offered a place at a college or university and 10 points for proving they could fund their course and support themselves.

At the same time, the government will also require all foreign students to be sponsored by a college licensed by the UK Border Agency, part of the Home Office. Any college or university wanting to bring in international students has to be accredited and licensed. This has reduced the number of institutions able to bring students to the UK from more than 4,000 to about 2,000.

Johnson said despite the changes, the system had still allowed terrorist suspects to gain entry to Britain and stay there despite the visas being temporary. Many applications were bogus and used for students to find work.

"We created our points-based system so we could respond quickly to changing circumstances when necessary to raise the bar students have to meet to come to the UK. We remain open to those foreign students who want to come to the UK for legitimate study - they remain welcome," he said.

"But those who are not seriously interested in coming here to study but come primarily to work - they should be in no doubt that we will come down hard on those that flout the rules. I make no apologies for strengthening an already robust system."

But Johnson acknowledged the UK was the second most popular location after the US for overseas students entering higher education. But he added: "We have to be careful that we are not damaging a major part of our economy, between 5 billion pounds and 8 billion pounds." (US$7,8 billion - US$12.5 billion.)

The Home Office issued 236,000 student visas in 2008-09, accounting for 30% of people entering the country, and refused 110,000 applications. The new rules will come into effect on 3 March.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the vice-chancellors' organisation Universities UK, said: "We are concerned about the proposals to restrict English language study as the UK is a major destination for students wishing to learn English before studying for a degree and there is a real risk that restrictions on reputable education institutions will make the UK less attractive to international students.

"We will be discussing this aspect of the proposals in more detail with [the border agency] over the next few weeks."