In interview with University Business
Q: What are students’ common perceptions of the UK VISA system?
Professor Colin Riordan: Although the system can appear complicated to navigate there have been improvements to the information provided to students, such as recent videos produced by the University of Sheffield in partnership with the Home Office to dispel myths.
The UK may appear unwelcoming via some political messaging when in fact it’s not, as international students report high satisfaction rates with UK HEIs.
UK universities remain extremely attractive to international students, at a time when there is growing demand for quality higher education across the world. We have one of the strongest university systems in the world and there is a clear opportunity for us to build on this success.
Are there any particular aspects of the VISA application criteria which are particularly hard for your international students to meet?
It can be difficult to understand the requirements around maintenance funds and which evidence is appropriate to demonstrate they have the money to support themselves. Submitting the wrong evidence is one of the main causes of visa refusals.
The limits on study time – five years with some exemptions for PhDs – has complicated things for students who have been in the UK for a while (and may struggle to get a visa extension if they have exceeded the limit unless there are compassionate and compelling circumstances).
Credibility interviews were introduced relatively recently – we don’t hear of students reporting significant issues with how they are conducted but there is limited scope for students to contest a negative decision arising from an interview, to which they have no access to the recording.
Q: Have you noted any particular rise or fall in application numbers from specific countries, or in certain subjects?
CR: Here at Cardiff University our undergraduate (UG) applications are generally growing; where there is a decline, this is not attributed to the impact of visa regulations. Growth is a result of a strategic push towards UG recruitment. Overall applications show a different picture; we attribute the impact of the immigration regulations to a decline in South Asia, although efforts in India have stalled this decline recently, and in key African markets such as Nigeria. We continue to see a rise in demand in China, Malaysia, HK and Saudi Arabia.
UK-wide, the number of Indian students has gone down (by 49% between 2012/11 and 2012/13). Other key markets seeing declines included Pakistan (-21%), Canada (-3%), Nigeria (-4%), Saudi Arabia (-6%), and Thailand (-3%).
But Chinese numbers are up: a third of all non-EU students starting courses in the UK are now from China.
But the official data on international students in the UK is often up to two years old so it is hard to get a complete picture. We have seen some positive developments recently, including the publication of the UK government’s international education strategy. The strategy states that the UK is capable of attracting almost 90,000 extra international university students by 2018.
During his trip to India last year, the Prime Minister also made clear that genuine international students are welcome in the UK and that there is no cap on numbers. This commitment was repeated in the speech given by the new Minister for Immigration, James Brokenshire in March 2014.
Q: Is it fair that students are still regarded as ‘migrants’ in net immigration figures?
CR: We would prefer it if students were not regarded as migrants, as they are not, for example, in the US. The UK approach is at odds with other countries which classify students as temporary or non-permanent residents. International students come to the UK, study, and either return to their home country (the great majority) or remain here legally. The Home Office confirms that there is a very high rate of compliance with regulations by university students (over 98%).
Six parliamentary committees – as well as many other prominent individuals and groups – have now called on the government to take students out of the migration target.
International students make an extremely valuable contribution to the UK, both academically and financially. On their return, graduates from UK universities have established links with the country, so it is good in terms of diplomacy and business links (many world leaders have been educated at UK universities). It is vital, therefore, that genuine international students do not become caught up in efforts to bear down on immigration.
Q: What kind of help and support do you provide to international students in relation to VISA issues?
CR: At Cardiff, student services provides advice and support for current students. We have a Welfare Officer based in the International office who supports with pre-arrival students, and supports on the arrival process to make sure new students are aware of the requirements and their responsibilities.
We work with a network of education agents worldwide who provide guidance and support services for international students. We work closely with international partners – embassies, sponsor bodies, British Council etc, to ensure support where needed and maintain communication networks. International Office staff travel to support students through the recruitment process. This includes support and reassurance over the visa process.
Q: Do you think that any aspects of the UK student VISA system need to be reformed and, if so, which?
CR: There are a number of ways in which it could be reformed. We would like to see enhancements to post-study work. It is often reported that there are no longer any post-study work opportunities for non-EU students finishing their courses in the UK. Although the UK government has tightened up the eligibility rules on who can stay on to work after graduation, it is important to note that graduate opportunities still exist. We would like to see them improved, particularly for postgraduate students
Post-study work opportunities are, for many prospective students, an important part of the overall package considered when deciding where to study. Post-study work allows graduates to earn money to pay off tuition fees, gain experience in their chosen field, and experience life in the UK. Many return home having forged strong professional and personal links in this country that provide long-term ‘soft power’ benefits for the UK.
Competitor countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Germany are extending their post-study work offer. There is evidence that post-study work opportunities are particularly important to potential students from India, who are more likely than many other groups to study postgraduate STEM courses.
A number of select committees have recommended improvements to the UK’s post-study work opportunities. We also welcome the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration’s inquiry into post-study work, announced June 2014.
We would also like to see changes implemented less frequently (an annual cycle with sufficient advance notice).
Generally, the UK must ensure it presents a welcoming climate for genuine international students and ensure that visa and immigration rules are proportionate and properly communicated.