This article is more than 5 years old

A two-tier Tier 4 system will damage the entire UK HE sector

Christina Slade criticises UKVI's selection of a small group of universities to trial differential student visas.
This article is more than 5 years old

Christina Slade is Vice Chancellor of Bath Spa University.

Leaving the EU is a challenge for all UK universities and a particular challenge for smaller ones. Smaller universities face not only the loss of European students discouraged by the lack of guarantees for student finance, but also the threat of a differential visa regime which favours research intensive universities.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that higher education students will stay in the net migration targets, and she aims, through Amber Rudd in the Home Office, to cut net migration. Theresa May’s view is that the UK should accept only “the brightest and best” international students. When I came from Australia as a Commonwealth Scholar to Oxford in the 1970s, some students won scholarships and others paid. There was no cap on student visas. Many of us went home (as I did); others chose to stay and enrich the UK. While higher education was once only for the brightest and best in the UK, it may have been defensible to insist on only the brightest and best foreign students. Now there is no excuse.

Higher education is a public good. It improves the lives of those who engage in it – it has an impact on post study income, on voting behaviour, on social and economic capital. The UK has expanded so that nearly 50 per cent of young people go to university. By definition they cannot all be the brightest and best.

At Bath Spa University many students come from non-traditional backgrounds. Of our UK students some 70 per cent have a so-called a Widening Participation marker – as assessed by parental income, education levels and postcode. Mass higher education enables our workforce to compete globally, especially now that the European market will most likely be closed to free movement of British workers and vice versa.

At present, universities are granted Highly Trusted Status’ (HTS) and are entrusted with ascertaining that students are bona fide and have the level of English suitable for study. It is – as it should be – the university’s decision to accept the academic qualifications of applicants. Universities choose students with the skills and abilities suitable for their programmes. HTS allows universities to issue a Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS) which is then the basis for the issuing of a Tier 4 student visa. The Home Office, through UK Visa and Immigration Service (UKVI) checks visas before they are issued and can challenge particular students on the basis of English qualifications or bona fide status (normally on the grounds of inadequate finance or irregular documentation).  UKVI regulations state that 10 per cent rejection of visas will trigger an audit of university processes. The process is onerous, but it is not unfair. That might be about to change.

Compounding the Brexit pain

A trial is currently underway at four universities (Oxford, Bath, Imperial, Cambridge) of differential visas where Masters students will have the right to work when they finish their studies. According to UKVI these universities were selected because of their their low visa refusal rates, but in reality their rates are not substantially different from many in the sector. If that trial is extended, any university not in the preferred group will suffer real reputation and brand damage.

This is a serious risk for the whole higher education sector in the UK. We have argued for years that higher education across the UK is excellent. A differential visa regime would undermine that message. It is extraordinary that this experiment can be put in place while criteria for preferred status are not transparent. Does government believe that only traditional research intensives should have the right to recruit international students?

Reputational damage will not be the only effect. Inclusive globalisation is the key to driving social mobility. Leaving Europe will make internationalisation even more critical for universities. International networks can transform students’ chances of finding work. Our students need to develop friendships with international students studying on campus; they need to go on exchanges (which are reciprocal and require visas). International mobility, such as study abroad or placements, transforms the employment prospects of disadvantaged students and has been proven to do so time and again:

‘Graduates from a background in routine occupations who had a period of mobility earned on average £1,346 per year more than their non mobile equivalents and were less likely to be unemployed six months after graduation even when degree attainment is controlled for’ (IPN UUK, Gone International 2016).

Leaving Europe will hurt the young – their job prospects and their ability to function globally. The worst affected will be those with the least social and economic capital. I believe that the current and developing immigration policy on student visas will ensure that this effect is compounded.

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