What do smaller institutions think about the student visa system?

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International students make a huge contribution to UK higher education, bringing the best minds from around the world to study here, creating a diverse academic community as well as their financial impact – generating more than £25bn for the economy. The Home Secretary has recently commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the impact of international students to explore these impacts in more detail.

In a previous article for Wonkhe I highlighted the impact on institutions with small numbers of international students of the policy to automatically remove an institution’s Tier 4 licence if they exceeded a 10% visa refusal threshold. Our research identified the visa refusal threshold as one of the most contentious areas of the UKVI guidance – particularly for smaller institutions – due to the disproportionate impact given the smaller student numbers, and that not all refusals were the fault of the institution. Institutions highlighted that there needs to be greater recognition of the limitations of metrics for smaller institutions.

87% of GuildHE institutions that responded to our survey indicated that they were concerned or very concerned by the possibility of further reduction in the visa refusal threshold, and over half saying that they had been negatively impacted by the previous reduction from a 20% refusal rate to 10%.

This finding comes out of research that GuildHE has done jointly with shared internal audit and assurance service Uniac, looking at Tier 4 compliance. With a 75% response rate to the survey from GuildHE members, supplemented with follow-up interviews with a third of our members the research a provides a comprehensive analysis of members’ views.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of institutions have the risks associated with immigration on their main corporate risk register, with most indicating that risk levels were seen as high or medium, mainly due to the consequences of “getting it wrong” even with one or two student visa refusals. It is perhaps because of these risks that almost half of institutions have increased their staffing levels in the past year to support compliance in this area. Almost half of institutions also now have a formal working group or committee overseeing UKVI compliance with staff drawn from all relevant parts of the institution.

Exit checks

The recent publication by the ONS that 97% of international students leave the UK before their visa expires might relieve pressure from the Home Office to expect institutions to track this data. This is likely to be welcomed by universities, with institutions commenting on the “significant burden” that attempting to track this would generate.

In the in-depth interviews we asked 15 institutions how they would feel if exit checks were brought in. There was an overwhelming negative response, mainly related to the impracticality and ineffectiveness of this process, together with the fact that universities would have no way of enforcing these checks once a student had completed their course. This stems mainly from the fact that there is no way of guaranteeing that a student has left the country. Most institutions felt that only the Home Office would have the data to distinguish between students who had left and students that are still in the UK.

Tightening IELTS Requirements

It has previously been floated that one way of tightening visa requirements might be increase the English language requirements to study in the UK. Almost all institutions (94%) expressed concerns about the possibility of IELTS requirements being tightened, with twelve (39%) being very concerned. It should be recognised that subjects are likely to have different language requirements, for example some creative and performing arts subjects are likely to have different expectations than some more written-based subjects, it is about the appropriate levels of English for the course.

It is worth noting that of the 31 respondents, twelve (39%) undertook some form of their own additional diagnostic language testing. The majority of providers offered it as part of pre-sessional courses with success a requirement for subsequent admission.  

A number of approaches by individual providers to guarantee appropriate English levels included:

  • ensuring that all applicants are interviewed (face-to-face/Skype) to check their English levels prior to an application progressing
  • making use of external third-party testing such as BSKB testing and Password Skills Testing
  • testing students from specific partnerships known to have greater difficulties  
  • testing all students (whether international or home) for English language ability on entry in order to provide support where needed

Possible improvements to the compliance system

Participants in the survey and in the follow up calls had many suggestions as to how to improve the compliance system. By far the most frequent requests across the survey and the phone calls were improved UKVI communication, including greater clarity in the guidance (particularly around credibility interviews), and the avoidance of generic statements. There was a desire to see more flexibility and recognition of HE as a diverse and highly compliant sector and a move to a more risk-based approach. There was also a call for a tiered subscription charge for the premium service based on size to enable smaller institutions to engage.

Over the last couple of years the officials within the Home Office have made efforts to improve relations with the higher education sector, and we hope that this research will provide a useful steer to enhance relations further.

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