INDIA-UK: New student visa requirements restrictive

Although Britain this month ended a six-month suspension of issuing student visas in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, it has tightened student visa rules to include new language requirements. Many overseas students say this is too restrictive and could lead to genuine students opting to go elsewhere for their studies.

Britain tightened up on student visas this year to include restrictions on those wanting to enroll in English language schools, and set more stringent requirements for English language proficiency for other courses.

"The whole point of going to the UK is to study and improve our English. It is not fair to ask us to prove our competency before taking up the course," said Anjana Ray, who applied for a student visa from New Delhi, hoping to study for a diploma in social sciences.

The revised norms, including tougher language requirements, were drawn up after the UK Border Agency suspended student visa applications from North India, Nepal and Bangladesh in February as it investigated an inexplicable six-fold increase in student visa applications.

According to British Home Office figures, some 313,011 non-European Union students were granted visas in the 12 months to March, bringing with them 31,385 dependants - a big increase compared to previous years.

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In December last year, the British exams regulator Ofqual raised concerns that prospective immigrants could use English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) certificates issued by real or bogus language schools to apply for UK permanent residency.

Esol certificates were "being issued with virtually no training or learning taking place and with insufficient rigour in the assessment process", Ofqual said.

Last month the Border Agency announced it was partially lifting the suspension of student visa applications in North India, Bangladesh and Nepal for degree and foundation degree applicants. On 12 August visa suspensions were lifted for all other student applications, including for vocational and sub-degree courses, subject to revised language requirements.

This may have come as a relief to some but the suspension had already caused major disruption.

"I could not get a visa in February despite the fact that I had paid my tuition fees and a part of my accommodation expenses. The UK seems to be more and more reluctant to admit non-EU students," said Kunal Raj, a student from Chandigarh.

Raj could not get a full refund for his fees. "I managed to convince my college and they have agreed that I can join the fall session provided I get my visa," he said.

However, under the latest requirements, students applying for a visa must speak English to near-General Certificate of Secondary Education level.

They are required to have minimum scores in either the Test of English as a Foreign Language, the International English Language Testing System, or the Pearson test of English.

Or they must provide evidence of having passed the Border Agency's approved 'secure English' language test at B1 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Level B1 is mid-way in the six-level system of measuring language proficiency.

"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," a Border Agency spokesperson said this week.

But students in India hoping to study in Britain and who attended English-medium schools could not see the relevance of stricter English language norms.

"I have studied in an English medium school. I did college and gave all my exams in the English language. Despite that I am expected to sit for English tests," complained Radhika Rajyapakshe, a commerce student from Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi.

Counsellors and education consultants said the changes could lead to a fall in the number of students applying to the UK.

"Genuine students will not be affected by the requirements for English language. However, students going for short courses will need to seriously think about their application, what they want to study and prepare themselves well," said Ratan Kumar Mukherjee, manager (visas and operations) at education consultant Global Reach.

Responding to criticism of the new visa restrictions during his visit to India in July, British Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts strongly defended the new rules, saying they would effectively check migrants coming in the garb of students.

Willets said: "There have been problems not linked to India. There have been problems in the past where sometimes the necessary controls every nation has to have, have not been properly implemented. Some people have been claiming to have come to Britain to study but were not competent enough. So it's a matter of properly policing these arrangements and that's what we are doing," he said.

But in India this is seen as disadvantaging genuine students caught up in Britain's policy to cut down on immigration as a whole.

"Indians make up the largest chunk of students going to the UK. But the ongoing changes seem more like a political gimmick to satisfy the electorate at home rather than making a big difference in the procedures," said the head of an education consultancy in India, who was not willing to be quoted.

Latest official statistics show that in 2007-08, there were 341,790 non-UK students in higher education in the UK. International students accounted for 14% of the full-time student population and 43% at research and postgraduate level.