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Study UK: providers weigh up impact of policy crunch (The PIE News)

14 October 2015

UK Home Office policy affecting international students and the impact this has on Britain’s image as a study destination overseas was the subject of lively debate at Study UK’s annual conference today, with commentators predicting a demise in the diversity of education institutions operating in the current policy landscape.

Graham Able, chairman of Exporting Education UK, called the UK’s approach to international students “irrational”, adding that there is “no evidence to support” Home Secretary Theresa May’s suggestion during a recent speech on immigration that universities are not concerned about whether or not students overstay their visas.

Throughout the day, providers discussed the impact of recent policy changes, as well as potential future changes.

Speaking up during the morning’s plenary, Study UK chief executive Alex Proudfoot said: “We often find in recent months that policies are brought in without any proper consultation and we try to mitigate the impact once they’ve come in.”

One policy that could prove damaging is a new requirement for universities to prove they are able to maintain financial capability if they lose their Tier 4 licence to sponsor international students, warned Joy Elliott-Bowman, policy and public affairs manager at Study UK.

“I expect that in the next one to two years you’re going to see a huge drop in the sponsor register from the new financial requirements,” she told The PIE News.

“[These requirements] are too big for some sponsors to manage, so with that new, additional responsibility they’ll fail [QAA’s] higher education review, which means they’ll lose their Tier 4 licence,” she predicted.

Other changes that have been mooted by the Home Office include raising the English requirements to study in the UK, and lowering the number of visa refusals Tier 4 sponsors are allowed in order to keep operating to 5%.

The lowering of the visa refusal rate cap is now being talked about openly by Home Office officials and will almost certainly come in “within the next 12 months”, Nichola Carter, immigration lawyer at Carter-Thomas, advised attendees.

She noted that there is also talk of introducing an interim cap of 7-8%.

However, some institutions have already expressed concern over what in some cases has appeared to be a heavy-handed approach to assessing visa applications.

John Crick, director of international student recruitment at SAE Institute, said that one student’s application had been refused on the grounds that they did not know what SAE stands for, even though the institute has not publicly spelled out the initialism in 35 years.

Carl Lygo, Group CEO of private university group BPP Professional Education, said that there may be some positive changes to come, but outlined his “nightmare scenario” as one in which it becomes universities’ duty to “escort students off the island” before their visas run out.

However, universities being required to ‘count students out’ is a “very likely scenario” and one that the sector “[has] to be prepared for”, Able told attendees.

He added that he has “some sympathy” for the Home Office as it attempts to eliminate bad practice from the sector.

“We need to get our own house in order,” he told delegates, saying that providers must ensure that programmes are well regulated.

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of representative body GuildHE, talked about the need to engage the Home Office using “clear, reasoned, well backed-up” arguments demonstrating the impact that policies might have.

Nevertheless, he added: “You hope that the transaction that is going on is one of evidence, but often there are other things going on, such as politics.”

Speaking with The PIE News, Proudfoot said that Study UK has been advocating for any changes to legislation to the sector to be “as moderate as possible” and to avoid giving the impression that Britain is closed to students.

“They need to actually tackle instances of abuse rather than just be more sort of tightening of requirements, which doesn’t in the end help anyone,” he said.

“What we need is the government to understand that their objectives can be achieved in cooperation with the sector rather than in opposition to the sector.