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Universities warn student against hostile student visa changes

The government’s proposal to reduce the number of overseas students has been described by vice-chancellors as a hostile act against British universities.

MPs were warned that changes to the student immigration system would “savagely cut” recruitment, lose at least £1bn in fees, and jeopardise the future of “stem” subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – in particular.

The criticism followed a speech by the immigration minister, Damian Green, in which he highlighted cases of “unpleasant abuse” to justify the curb on overseas students, part of a package aimed at reducing net migration to the UK below 100,000 by the next election.

Green insisted that the impact would be restricted to below-degree courses, particularly those in private further education colleges, and that ministers would “do nothing” to prevent those coming to study at “our world-class academic institutions above and below degree level”.

Professor Edward Acton, vice chancellor at the University of East Anglia, speaking for Universities UK, told MPs that 30-50% of overseas students at British universities would be hit by the curbs as they went through “pathway courses”, especially in the English language, in preparation for degree-level courses.

Acton said the government’s focus on student visa abuse obscured the fact that its proposals would drastically reduce legitimate higher education recruitment. The impact on pre-university courses would cost universities about £1bn in fee income alone. The measures would amount to a “hostile act”, he told the home affairs select committee.

In addition to this, the Home Office have expressed a desire to stop successful students from remain in the UK and working for 2 years as is currently allowed under the Tier 1 Post Study Work Visa. This is a powerful incentive for international students to choose the UK for higher education and many are concerned that removal of this incentive will make the UK higher education system far less attractive to international students.

Similar changes were made in Australia, resulting in a drastic reduction in income for the Universities. Australia has now had to try and undo the damage done by again changing policy. It is a cause of great concern to some that the Home Office appear to be oblivious to the lessons that should be learned from this.

Home Office ministers want to impose tougher English language requirements on overseas students, restrict their ability to work while studying, and limit their ability to bring in dependants after graduating. Student visas are to be restricted to degree level and above for all but those with “highly trusted sponsors”.

It is estimated the measures will close the door on up to 120,000 students from outside Europe, out of the annual 300,000 student immigration programme.

Universities UK says Britain is second in the global student market, at 11.8%, behind the US, with overseas students making up nearly 15% of all higher education enrolments in 2008. They make up 45% of postgraduate students and sustain research in many “strategically important” subjects”. They make up 62% of postgraduates in engineering, 63% in maths and computer science, and 27% in physical sciences.

Directors of Imperial College London and the London School of Economics told MPs their overseas postgraduate research students were critical to maintaining their world-leading positions. They said individual universities should decide on the level of English needed, and pointed out that engineering English was different from that needed to study classics.

Green said the majority of non-EU migrants were students. He did not want to jeopardise the £5bn-a-year contribution of foreign students to the economy. “I am seeking to eliminate abuses within the system,” he said.

He was targeting the private further education sector offering sub-degree courses, in which 613 private colleges were rated less than “highly trusted” by the UK Border Agency. The sector brought in 91,000 students last year, he said.

He cited cases including that of a college that had two lecturers for 940 students, and another where placements included working in a pizza chain, as examples of abuse of the system.

The official consultation period on the student visa route closed this week. Green confirmed that he intended to press ahead with his proposals and may go further in limiting post-study work “at a time when graduate unemployment is at its highest level for 17 years”.