UK: Job rules 'may send foreign students to Australia'

The UK is seen as less welcoming to international students following the imposition of visa restrictions, according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs. Significant numbers of foreign students may instead choose to study in Australia due to Britain's abolition of the Post Study Work scheme, it said.

Its warning came in a report on the findings of its own survey of more than 5,000 international students who chose to come to the UK and were successful in getting a visa.

Immigration rules affecting international students have changed 11 times in two-and-a-half years, plus there have been numerous changes to guidance.

Of the recent changes, the abolition of the Post Study Work route was rated as having the most negative impact on student decisions to study in the UK, followed by changes to the rules on working while studying.

Professor Paul Webley, chair of the board of trustees of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), said other areas of continuing concern included frequent changes to the immigration rules and guidance, lack of clear information and advice, the cost and effort required to assemble necessary supporting evidence and the high number of applications rejected on the basis of minor errors or omissions.

In a preface to the report of the survey, Webley said: "As well as the application process, students are influenced by the publicity given to changes in UK immigration policy.

"Respondents said that the most recent changes have made the UK appear less welcoming. In particular, the abolition of the Post Study Work scheme is widely lamented."

The lack of clear information about successor arrangements meant students had no reassurance that any alternative would be available to them, he said.

The survey provides no indication about the numbers of students recruited to the UK this year, but Webley noted that there have been "extensive reports" that numbers from India (and possibly Bangladesh and Pakistan) are "significantly down" in many institutions.

"With the announcement by Australia of its new Post-Study Work scheme, it is quite possible that significant numbers will be attracted to go there instead and that the real impact on numbers choosing the UK will only be felt in 2012," Webley added.

The impact of recent rule changes on private colleges has also been "dramatic", with recruitment to many of those institutions decimated as students conclude that without part-time work, the cost of study in the UK is no longer affordable.

To date, some 30 colleges have closed with up to 5,000 students currently attempting to find places in other colleges (or having to return home). It is feared this pattern may continue. Many of these colleges provided places to students on pre-tertiary courses that offered a pathway to entering higher education.

Webley concluded: "The potential damage to the UK's education sector from all these factors is a very real concern."

Of the 5,000 plus respondents to the survey, 720 had applied for visas in the UK and 4,500 from overseas. More than 50% of respondents reported confusion or difficulties resulting from changes in the rules. Of those applying from overseas, only 28% found the cost of a visa reasonable. The additional costs of obtaining a visa had risen steeply.

More than one in 10 respondents were affected by the raising of the English language requirement.

One in 20 applicants were required to take an additional test to get a higher score, 4% had to take a different test because the UK Border Agency (UKBA) would not accept the test the institution had originally accepted and 3% of respondents unexpectedly had to attend a pre-sessional course. Around 500 respondents were required to obtain two visas to attend a pre-sessional course.

Rule changes affecting dependants were rated as having only a moderate impact on student perceptions of the UK being welcoming, although the actual number bringing dependants was very small.

Critics had warned that the tightening of the rules, as part of a government drive to halt rising immigration numbers, would create the market perception that Britain is 'open for business, but not for foreigners'.

A panel of university stakeholders warned in January that the planned visa and employment restrictions could have a "catastrophic effect" on higher education.

While 60% of respondents said they believed the UK welcomes international students, one in five respondents neither agreed nor disagreed and 19% actively disagreed.

Webley warned that a still more negative picture might have been drawn if survey respondents had included those who chose not to come to the UK or were not able to get a visa.

UKCISA recommended that, as a matter of urgency, the government should monitor the impact on recruitment of the abolition of the Post Study Work scheme and publish the rules for international students wanting to work after their studies.

It stressed that there was a need for the Foreign Office and the British Council to work with UKBA to develop a "positive communications strategy" to counter recent negative publicity, clarify areas of concern and emphasise that the UK continues to welcome well-qualified students.

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