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UK independent sector debates visa challenges (Study Travel Magazine)

19 October 2015

Delegates at the annual conference of Study UK, an association for independent providers of further and higher education, gathered to debate approaches to government visa policy and sector reforms last week.

In the welcome address, Simon Cleaver, Chair of Study UK, spoke of a busy year for the association and of tumultuous events to come. “Our industry is going through one its most challenging periods ever.”

Graham Able, Chairman of Exporting Education UK, criticised a number of elements of current government policy in the opening plenary, as well as remarks made in a recent Conservative Party conference speech by Home Secretary, Theresa May.

He said that it was illogical to claim there is no limit in the number of international students welcomed to the UK while students remain within the migration data, which the government aims to reduce to “tens of thousands”.

Recent suggestions that institutions should be responsible for ensuring students leave after completion of studies was a “devolvement of border responsibilities to those not in a position to enforce them”, he claimed. He also said the eligibility interviews meant that genuine students were being turned away by unqualified immigration officers, and added that recent changes relating to progression allow visa offers to judge progress, rather than academics.

“Our industry is world class and highly successful. With government backing we could easily achieve five per cent growth and we should be aiming for the double-digit growth of Australia and Canada,” Graham said.

In a subsequent panel debate on immigration concerns, Carl Lygo, Vice-Chancellor of BPP University, called for a fresh approach, arguing that the industry’s lobbying over removing international students from migration data had clearly failed and that this by itself would not actually achieve anything. He referred to his own institution’s recruitment increases as evidence that success was possible within the current regime.

One delegate outlined some of the spurious reasons for refusals of student visa applications and warned that good, experienced agents can easily switch a student’s attention to another destination if they see the UK as too problematic.

It was acknowledged by most speakers at the event that the student visa refusal threshold is likely to be reduced to five per cent, having declined from 20 per cent to the current level of 10 per cent in the last year.   

In a session of compliance with UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) rules, Nichola Carter, Principal Solicitor at Carter Thomas Solicitors and an expert on international education, claimed that an interim threshold of eight per cent was likely, because of the “collateral damage” that would be caused by an immediate shift to five per cent.

She advised that the Home Office is likely to be examining historical decisions to sponsor, due to the large number of applications for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) now being received, and will give greater scrutiny of failure to report changes in student circumstances. She added that the Toeic fraud scandal of last year is still a “hot topic”.

Co-presenter Perrin Carey, Director of Eunomiasolutions Ltd, predicted that there would be a UKVI shift to more principle-based regulation, greater scrutiny of shared CAS (Certificate of Acceptance of Studies) operations, increased individual accountability and greater robustness in onsite audits by UKVI.

Commenting on the launch of Study UK’s manifesto, released prior to the UK general election, Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive of the association, welcomed the fact that at least half of the proposals seemed on their way to fruition.

In particular, he praised moves towards a new validation system, with the government suggesting that the route to degree awarding powers will be opened up to more private providers.

Elsewhere at the conference, there were sessions on quality assessment, international marketing and a keynote address on what higher education providers can learn from teachers in secondary education.

It was also announced that Study UK will be running its first overseas mission to Indonesia in 2016, and Alex said he hoped this would be a launch pad to further overseas marketing opportunities.