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40 institutions may be affected by tougher visa rules

Universities may lose their licences to recruit overseas students with the 10 per cent threshold for refusal rates. Fears are growing over the toughening of government rules on visa refusal rates as it could lead to a number of universities losing their licences to recruit overseas students.There are suggestions that many are above the new 10 per cent threshold for visa application failure.

Source: THES Source: THES
04-09-2014 by The Times Higher Education

A toughening of government rules on visa refusal rates could lead to a number of universities losing their licences to recruit overseas students. It has been suggested by one senior sector source that official figures showed a spread of between 1 per cent and 17 per cent for universities on visa refusals. The average was 8.8 per cent.  According to the source, it is estimated that this would leave about 35 to 40 universities above the 10 per cent threshold. This included some Russell Group institutions.  Such institutions would be at risk of losing their licences to recruit international students.

James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, sent a separate letter to a university group. The letter cites an average visa refusal rate of 8.9 per cent among institutions. However, his letter is unclear as to whether he is referring to universities or to all educational institutions.  The Home Office refused to clarify the figure.

Universities grant 'Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies' letters to non-European Union students whom they have accepted for entry. These letters are then used by students as part of their subsequent visa applications. However, it is not within the power of universities to entirely control their visa refusal rates.  Student errors in documentation and Home Office judgements in credibility interviews are among the factors that can lead to rejections. To a certain extent, some fear, this puts universities’ sponsor licences at the mercy of external variables.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Theresa May, the home secretary, announced on 29 July that from November “tougher rules will be imposed on universities and colleges who sponsor international students to study in the UK”.  This means that institutions that exceed a 10 per cent failure rate for visa applications face losing their Highly Trusted Status (HTS).  It is this HTS that enables institutions to sponsor student visas.

The announcement was expected as it had already been floated by Mr Brokenshire. 

Mr Brokenshire also said in a June letter to university group Million+ that he was “concerned that there remain some institutions offering places to individuals who do not meet the immigration rules”.  He added: “Reducing the maximum permitted refusal level from 20 per cent to 10 per cent will not affect the vast majority of institutions. However, where institutions are near that refusal rate it gives rise to considerable concerns about those institutions and their approach and it is intended to affect those who are not carrying out proper checks on those they recruit or are actively seeking to evade immigration control.” He continued by saying that the 20 per cent refusal rate was introduced in 2010 when the average refusal rate was 21.17 per cent. “It is now 8.9 per cent,” said Mr Brokenshire.

The director general of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, said: “Our universities have excellent records as student visa sponsors and expect no adverse effects from this change.”

The average visa refusal rate across the Russell Group is 2 per cent, according to other sources.  This suggested that only very few of the licences of Russell Group members, if any, would be in jeopardy.

The chief executive of Million+, Pam Tatlow, said: “There is no robust evidence to support the Home Office’s claim that institutional visa refusal rates are a high-quality measure of a university’s performance in terms of its Highly Trusted Status.”

A former head of managed migration at the Home Office, Don Ingham, said that the 10 per cent threshold was “very tight” and “will concern a number of universities, no doubt about it”. Ingham now runs Veristat, an immigration consultancy that advises education providers. He said that universities “can try as hard as they want, but there are variables [such as] what the student chooses to do and the quality of Home Office processes”. “These [are] variables they can’t really control.” Mr Ingham added that credibility interviews conducted by Home Office staff for student visa applicants from “high-risk” countries introduced a subjective variable into the process. This, according to Ingham, required potential students to give detailed answers about their chosen courses, including module content.

"We are tightening the rules to make sure colleges and universities, who directly benefit from student migration, work with us to prevent abuse – or lose their ability to recruit international students.” But he added that the change “should not affect the vast majority of institutions", said a Home Office spokesman.