Plans to discourage foreign students threaten a successful British business
Feb 17th 2011 | from PRINT EDITION
TWO countries, keen rivals in the increasingly competitive market for international students, announced reviews of their visa systems in December. Australia, which has seen applications from foreign students fall since it began tightening the rules to combat immigration fraud in 2008, is thinking of relaxing them again to boost numbers. Britain, which has also been cracking down on abuse, wants to tighten its system further. At a time when university funding is being squeezed and exports are expected to power the shaky economic recovery, this approach has its critics.
Britain has recently experienced the largest wave of immigration in its history. This contributed to a long stretch of economic growth, but has also provoked unease about jobs, wages, public services and terrorism. Before last year’s general election the Conservatives made a pledge to cut annual net immigration, currently around 200,000, to the “tens of thousands” by the end of this parliament; now in government (with the Liberal Democrats), they are trying to meet it. The trouble is that many immigrants are either Britons returning from abroad or other European citizens who can’t be kept out.
Thus in November the coalition government announced a permanent and controversial cut in the number of non-Europeans coming in to work (a fifth of the total in 2009); this week it revealed that those earning more than £150,000 ($240,000) would be exempted from the new limit. Students are a far bigger target, accounting for well over half of non-European migrants, and their numbers have been rising (see chart). It isn’t surprising that they are in the government’s sights too.
Yet students contribute some £10 billion a year to Britain’s economy, guesses Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, a pressure group. Higher education alone is the country’s seventh-biggest export, reckons Steve Smith, of Universities UK, another lobby. Foreign university students subsidise domestic ones, who pay lower fees, and keep labs open: they do the lion’s share of postgraduate scientific research. And many schools are thriving and creating jobs thanks to foreign students.
All the same, there are worries that student visas are used as an easy way into Britain’s labour market. Some immigrants sign up at bogus colleges that provide little or no education; some students never leave. An attempt by the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) to quantify visa fraud found much flouting of the rules at private further-education colleges in particular (and, to a lesser extent, at language schools). Damian Green, the immigration minister, thunders against people who ostensibly study in London while working in Wales.
But the government, desperate to redeem a misguided promise, seems to be reaching for a hatchet instead of a scalpel. Though firm proposals are not expected until March, the broad outlines of the likely changes are clear. Only “highly trusted” schools and colleges will be allowed to offer foreigners courses below university level. Applicants might have to show a better grasp of English than in the past. Those who want to go on from one course to another might have to go home to apply for another visa. And the prized right to stay and work for two years after completing a degree is likely to be reduced or removed.
Nervous colleges protest that the previous government had already made the system tougher—by, for instance, raising the English-language requirement for visa applicants. The register of outfits entitled to recruit foreign students had been whittled down from more than 12,000 to around 2,200 UKBA-approved establishments by March 2009; since then 60 more have been struck off and 68 are currently suspended. Over a quarter of institutions have agreed to stricter reporting standards in order to become “highly trusted sponsors”.
Immigration rules aren’t the only factor affecting students’ choice of country: Australia might have suffered as much from its strong currency and some well-publicised xenophobic incidents as from a harsher visa regime. Britain has the English language and an enviable reputation for quality. But visa rules matter: many schools reported a decline in Japanese business after the last tightening of the language requirement. The British Council, a cultural body, says there is concern in China, in particular, over the coming shake-up.
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from PRINT EDITION | Britain