Finalised details of student visa programme announced

Students applying for a visa to come to the UK will face tightened restrictions and requirements from 21 April 2011. The student visa system has been significantly reformed with the aim of drastically reducing the number of students coming to the UK.

Despite strong protests from MPs, universities, think tanks, students and many more the coalition government’s plans to overhaul the student visa system were announced on 21 March 2011. The UKBA later published a summary of the new student policy.

In the Home Office Press release, Home Secretary Theresa May said, ‘The changes ... re-focus the student route as a temporary one, available to only the brightest and best. The new system is designed to ensure students come for a limited period, to study not work, and make a positive contribution while they are here.’


Tier 4 changes

For students, from 21 April 2011 the following changes apply.

Length of stay

  • The time limits for visas will be reduced to a maximum stay of three years for ‘lower level’ courses and five years for ‘higher level’ courses. Exceptions will be made where PhD courses take longer than five years

Language requirements

  • Students applying for a degree level course will need to speak ‘upper intermediate’ English (level B2 on the Common European Framework of Reference). Universities can vouch for a student’s ability
  • Students applying for a below degree level course must demonstrate ‘lower intermediate’ English language skills (level B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference)
  • Students applying for courses not run by a university will have to provide test certificates from independent accredited bodies demonstrating their language skills
  • Language requirements may be waived for ‘truly exceptional’ students, if requested by a university registrar
  • UKBA staff will be able to refuse entry at the border to any students who can’t speak English and require a translator

Funding

  • Students must sign a declaration that they have funding for the duration of their course
  • Bank statements supporting an application must be from trusted banks, or the application will be refused. A list of untrusted banks will be established

Work and dependants

  • The Tier 1 (Post-study work) route is closed - graduating students wishing to work must now apply under Tier 2. See the article on changes to Tier 1 and Tier 2 of the points based system for more information
  • University students can work up to 20 hours per week and do work placements if the study : work ratio is at most 50 : 50
  • Students at publicly funded further education colleges can work up to 10 hours a week
  • All other students have no right to work and work placements are limited to study : work ratio of at most 66 : 33. This means at most you can spend one hour on placement for every two hours of study
  • Dependents and family members will only be allowed to come to the UK to be with students on postgraduate courses longer than 12 months or government sponsored courses.
  • Dependents will be allowed to work

For sponsoring organisations, from 21 April 2011 the following changes apply.

Accreditation of education sponsors

  • Institutions wishing to sponsor students will need to be accredited by Ofsted (or equivalent), QAA, the Independent Schools Inspectorate, the Bridge Schools Inspectorate or the Schools Inspection Service
  • All sponsors must register as ‘highly trusted sponsors’ by 2012
  • Private providers will be able to provide courses if a ‘highly trusted sponsor’ takes responsibility for sponsoring the student

The UKBA have also published comprehensive guidance on the changes in their document, Tier 4 of the Points Based System – Policy Guidance. This document is extensive in the detail it provides, although this also means that it is complicated to understand.


Migrants or students?

The announcement heralds significant changes for universities and future international students and many fear that they will wreck a £40 billion industry at a time when it is severely needed to help bring the country out of financial crisis.

Home Office ministers have drawn attention to the facts that students accounted for more than two-thirds of visas issued last year and that the category is now considerably larger than that for working migrants, or those coming to join family members.

These facts, however, do not account for the points raised in a recent cross-party select committee report which noted that the Home Office has based its actions on unreliable data. The report also highlights that most students who come to the country do not settle here and, as such, that it is uncertain as to whether or not they should be classed as migrants.


Abuses

A universally supported part of the changes will be to introduce stricter measures to monitor accredited institutions and prevent students entering the country to attend bogus courses.

The Home Office have cited further examples in their press release to demonstrate that these controls are needed:

  • After following up 200 applications from dependents seeking to join family members in the UK as students, in 20% of cases the student was no longer at the college
  • A survey of 454 south Asian students that the UKBA had suspicions about found that 65% of them could not demonstrate the required level of English and over 20% could speak no English at all
  • A college whose licence had been revoked had charged 6 students from the Philippines £25,000 for a year’s study which never took place. The students paid extra to spend the whole year on work placements

These are not isolated cases. Whilst the wisdom of other measures is under debate it is clear that abuses of the system, both by education institutions and students, should be prevented where possible to help protect genuine students.