Julian Huppert writes… Winning the fight on student visas

One area of division within the coalition government is about immigration. A number of Tory MPs are keen to keep foreigners out of the country, whereas Lib Dems and some Tories emphasise the need to ensure that businesses and educational institutes can get the best people, wherever they come from.

This has been a long fight, and will continue. The first round was over work visas – Tiers 1 & 2 – with Vince Cable and others ensuring that it would continue to be possible for companies to get the high-skilled staff they need, although there were some serious constraints on numbers.

For the last few months, the fight has shifted to Tier 4 – student visas. The original proposals that came from the Home Office were alarming, and threatened our successful education sector by making it too difficult for them to recruit students.

This sector is very important to our economy, with a direct financial impact of around £5 billion from international students. It’s one of our best exports.

Universities, FE colleges, language schools and a huge range of others lobbied hard to stop these damaging changes. I worked intensely on the Home Affairs Select Committee, which produced a report very critical of many of the proposals, and Ministers from all over government chimed in – from Vince Cable and David Willetts in BIS, Jeremy Browne in the FCO, to Nick Clegg, who used his position as DPM to fight for a more sensible, pragmatic approach. I also have to say that I suspect the Immigration Minister himself was not entirely happy with the original suggestions!

The result was a big win for universities and our education sector, a big win for our economy, and a big win for the Liberal Democrats in government.

There’s strong action on bogus colleges, and on bogus students, and this is absolutely right. Institutions that cheat the system should not be allowed to do so, and students who lie in order to gain entry into the country should be stopped. It is also right that we should not give student visas to those who are in fact coming here to work; they should come in under the work visa system.

But the rules for legitimate students have also improved. Undergraduates from outside the EEA will be allowed to work for up to 20 hours during term time – this was to be restricted.

Graduate students doing 1-year courses were not going to be allowed to bring their family with them. Now they will, and their family will be allowed to work.
The Post-study work route, allowing graduates to work in the country for two years after graduation, was going to be scrapped. Instead it will stay, and graduates will have four months to find a skilled job in the UK.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not quite what a Lib Dem Government would have done – but it’s good, and much better than a Tory government would have produced.

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9 Comments

  • It’s still going to be a disaster of huge proportions for an HE sector already reeling under fees and funding cuts. By making it harder to recruit foreign students, and preventing them from working, income will be even harder to come by. Not to mention the massive reputational hit UK education will take abroad. What’s the point in trying to develop a world class educational system when you exclude the rest of the world from participating?

    The logic in only taking students with good english also makes no sense, surely it would be better for the economy to charge foreign students with poor english skills for courses to learn english here?

    Does this also mean the UK will be pulling out of Erasmus and similar schemes? After all how can we send students abroad to learn the language of their host nation if we won’t reciprocate?

    I appreciate the lib dem attempts to improve things here, and undoubtedly they have, but not enough.

  • OK – This might go against the grain here, but….

    According to a recent HEFCE report, about half of all overseas fees go to 20 institutions (out of 100+), overwhelmingly based in the South East. The report did not list the 20. Put another way, a relatively small % of universities in a relatively small part of the country, ‘rely,’ on overseas income – whilst the rest operate on a model that does not de facto rely on a generous visa regime to exist. It would be interesting to know where in the academic pecking order those 20 are but it does rather beg the question of whether these courses are first and foremost in the interests of the UK citizen or UK plc. If courses rely on visas, is that a model that should be encouraged, or is this just chasing a buck?

    This whole debate seems to have about it a curious sense of entitlement – a belief that the phrase, ‘I am an overseas student,’ somehow should result in the unquestioned issue of a visa and also one to dependents. That grates rather. And before anyone jumps on me, yes, I went through the immigration systsem with my (overseas) wife.

    I am in no doubt that there is likely a gap between perception and reality about student visas, it’s just that bombast has started to take the place of thought on all sides of this debate. For what it’s worth, it does indeed look like the LDs have brought about an improved set of proposals here, and credit is due. It’s just that I’d be a bit more comfortable with the whole package if there was more evidence all round.

  • Duncan, it’s not just about money, Academia is supranational in its execution. It’s about international collaborations, academic freedoms and the flow of ideas. If you accept foreign postgrads who will work elsewhere when they finish you establish ties between your institution and institutions in other countries.

  • g – I don’t disagree. But look at the article. Just about the only actual argument in there is, ‘This sector is very important to our economy, with a direct financial impact of around £5 billion from international students. It’s one of our best exports.’ I’m not the one saying that.

    I realise, of course, that you are not saying that applications should be given no scrutiny. But my earlier point was that HEFCE’s evidence at the very least suggests that there are a number of courses which would not exist were it not for a benign visa regime. Put another way, academic excellence is not why they exist. Is that really healthy exchange or is this chasing the buck?

    Immigration policy does not exist for the convenience of academia.

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Mar '11 - 7:34pm

    According to a recent HEFCE report, about half of all overseas fees go to 20 institutions (out of 100+), overwhelmingly based in the South East. The report did not list the 20. Put another way, a relatively small % of universities in a relatively small part of the country, ‘rely,’ on overseas income – whilst the rest operate on a model that does not de facto rely on a generous visa regime to exist.

    This is unsurprising. If we discount people who are coming here to work, and only consider those who are here to study, then why would they come to the UK? Well, it would normally be to go to a university which is better than the ones they have in their country of origin. We have about 20 universities which are that good. It makes sense that these are the ones which attract all the international students.

  • Steve Wilson 25th Mar '11 - 12:49am

    In my experience, a large number of students enrolled onto course in some UK universities don’t even have the English skills to access the materials and the course at a pretty basic level. It’s long been a money-spinner for the institutions and is verging on corrupt in my opinion.I am amazed that it is never addressed in the media. I have had to teach these overseas students English before they embark on their courses and the standard of their English is frequently hopeless.

  • Andrew Suffield – That certainly is one interpretation, and I don’t doubt that you are to some extent correct. To an extent, this highlights the real issue with immigration as a whole – legislation for motive, a mug’s game at best. As you say, it may very well be that some people abuse the student visa system to come and work but clearly that is not the motive for every student visa application.

    But I would take issue on one point. You say, ‘Well, it would normally be to go to a university which is better than the ones they have in their country of origin. We have about 20 universities which are that good.’ I doubt hugely that that is every single London institution. There are an awful lot of criticisms to be levelled at the THES league table of universities, but in the top 200, China has six universities and India none. Even allowing for questions about methodology, that is a poor return given the resource and population in those two countries. I agree that the reason that some come is that they believe UK institutions to be better that what they could get in their home countries. But that is an issue that these people need to take up with the government in their home countries, not the UKBA.

  • duncan greenland 25th Mar '11 - 10:27am

    Duncan
    – the concentration of overseas students at specific UK universities might just suggest that they have a clearer perception of their RELATIVE quality than many British students !

    Steve
    – the ability of international students successfully to complete diifficult undergraduate and graduate degree courses has nothng whatever to do with their level of English before they start the process,provided that they receive appropriate English language instruction prior to or as they start their course ..The legislation as first drafted would have prevented such students being allowed to enrol at the excellent programmes offered by a handlful of universities themselves and by the “pathway” providers in partnership with the universities.That battle seems to have been won and that element of the proposed legislation changed for the better .

  • Steve Wilson 25th Mar '11 - 8:07pm

    Duncan,

    they don’t receive sufficient EFL tuition to be anything like suitable for a degree in an English University. It’s been a money spinner since at least the late 90s when I became involved.

    Your comment :”the ability of international students successfully to complete diifficult undergraduate and graduate degree courses has nothng whatever to do with their level of English before they start the process,provided that they receive appropriate English language instruction prior to or as they start their course” has to be the single daftest thing I’ve read all week.

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