UK: Government eases crackdown on student visas

British Home Secretary Theresa May (pictured) is striving to present new visa rules for students from outside the European Economic Area as a tough stand on immigration without sending a message that UK universities are "closed for business" in the competitive international student market.

Her Tuesday announcement of tougher restrictions was balanced with support for universities seeking to recruit the best international talent.

It follows a Home Office review that revealed alleged "widespread abuse" of student visas - almost exclusively in the sub-degree private college sector - a power struggle between government ministries to protect universities' ability to recruit non-EEA students, and warnings that the tough talk was already deterring applicants.

The main changes include:

* Tighter controls on institutions wanting to sponsor students from April 2012.
* English at an 'upper intermediate' (B2) level required for degree level studies. Currently a 'lower intermediate' (B1) is required.
* UK Border Agency staff will be able to refuse entry to students who cannot speak English without an interpreter, and who therefore clearly do not meet the minimum standard.
* Only postgraduate students at universities and government-sponsored students will be able to bring their dependants.
* Non-EEA students will not be able to spend more than five years doing courses at degree level, with exceptions for longer courses including medicine and architecture and for PhD study.
* Graduates to lose the right to two years to seek employment after graduation. Only graduates who have an offer of a skilled job under the general points-based visa system will be able to stay to work.

A new entrepreneur route for bright and innovative students who have a business idea and want to make it work in the UK, is promised.

May told MPs that the proposals would protect the interests of Britain's world-class universities and were in the best interests of legitimate students.

While international students not only made a vital contribution to the UK economy but also helped make Britain's education system one of the best in the world, "it has become very apparent that the old student visa regime failed to control immigration and failed to protect legitimate students from poor quality colleges," she said.

Her aim was not to stop genuine students coming to Britain but to eliminate abuse. "Our stricter accreditation process will see only first-class education providers given licences to sponsor students."

Universities UK said that the government had responded to concerns raised by vice-chancellors over the proposed changes. Nicola Dandridge, UUK's Chief Executive, said the proposals would allow British universities to remain at the forefront of international student recruitment.

"Visa abuse within the university sector is comparatively low, but we support measures designed to weed out any remaining abuse and ensure that all education providers are fulfilling their duties as sponsors."

She specifically welcomed the government's decision to retain the right of international students to work for a period of time in the UK after graduation in graduate level jobs.

"This is critically important in attracting international students to the UK, and without this we would be at a severe competitive disadvantage in comparison with other countries such as Canada, the US and Australia."

And there was relief that the government had recognised the importance of the pre-degree pathways that prepare international students for study at UK universities.

"It's crucial that the UK appears 'open for business' to those individuals who are genuinely committed to coming to the UK to study at one of our world-class institutions. This is a success story for the UK, but there is no shortage of global competition. At a time of financial pressures, this is vitally important for universities and the UK economy more widely," Dandridge said.

Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council, commented: "These measures should ensure that we continue to attract the best talent from around the world and avoid a situation where these individuals turn to other competitor countries."

But despite the government's softer line, there was a warning from the University and College Union the plans would still damage the UK's international reputation for education excellence and harm the economy.

General Secretary Sally Hunt said: "The government's student visa plans are short-sighted and risk sending out the worrying message that the UK is closed for business."

This was echoed in the commons by Labour shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, who claimed that some universities were already noticing a significant drop in applications from foreign students as a result of the signals being sent out by the Home Secretary's consultation.

And Conservative MP Brian Binley said that the perception that Britain's universities were open for business to the brightest and best did not hold good in China. "In fact, the Chinese think we are closed for business."

While she did not think there was any reduction in the number of applications from Chinese students, May placed the responsibility on the university sector to ensure the message went out that UK higher education remains open to international students.