UK visa system ‘undermining’ student exchanges

A decline in exchange students coming to the UK amid tightened immigration rules may affect the success of the government Turing scheme, Universities UK has warned

The UK visa system is discouraging some foreign exchange students with high costs and strict language requirements, “undermining” the potential of the post-Brexit Turing scheme.

That is the warning from Universities UK (UUK) to the government as it urged reform to the points-based system to encourage year-long student stays. It argues that making year stays cheaper and easier would benefit UK students, universities and the economy.

At present, exchange students wanting to stay up to six months are eligible for the standard visitor visa, which entails an application fee of £95 – but no health surcharges or English language prerequisites. Those staying longer face a £348 application fee, a £470 health surcharge and must present proof of at least a level B2 Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in English.

A report prepared by UUK urges the government to allow students on year-long exchanges to apply under the terms of the standard, six-month visitor visa.

UUK – which represents 140 universities – said the rules discourage longer stays and undermine the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for European Union students, who faced no restrictions when the UK was an EU member, and non-EU international students, who are a competitive market for the UK to crack.

The Turing Scheme is unlike Erasmus+ it replaced in that it only funds outward bound student exchanges.

Universities that won funding from the government-funded post-Brexit exchange scheme struck individual exchange agreements with international universities, these deals typically requiring mutual reciprocity. UUK warns that dwindling numbers of international students could hamper UK student exchanges.

Exchange students open up places in other universities around the world for our students to spend time studying abroad
– Vivienne Stern, Universities UK International 

It also warns that for the visa system to replicate the benefit of Erasmus+ to UK universities, it must make it easy to attract international students who make campuses vibrant and international and contribute up to £470 million to the UK economy annually.

A survey of 32 universities this summer by UUK indicates that EU-domiciled students are already shifting from year-long placements to single-semester stays, with some opting out of visiting the UK altogether.

In the five years before Brexit, almost three-quarters (73%) of EU exchange students, who benefited from freedom of movement, came to the UK for a period of between 24 weeks to a year, compared to 55% of non-EU nationals, who always faced visa requirements. These figures are evidence, UUK says, that simpler immigration arrangements encourage longer-term stays.

The number of exchange students from “top markets in Asia grew significantly” between 2015 and 2020, by 22% – but could grow further, the UUK report suggests.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “International students who come to the UK on short term exchanges are important to the UK for a number of reasons.

“Like full degree students, they add to the diversity on our campuses and contribute to our economy by spending money on goods and services while they are here, but they also create opportunities for UK students. Exchange students open up places in other universities around the world for our students to spend time studying abroad.”

Maggie Wootton, study abroad operations manager at the University of Birmingham, said: “Incoming students are an integral part of international exchange programmes, unlocking study and work experiences for UK-based students at universities worldwide.

“Success of the Turing scheme depends on the availability of global placements for our students, meaning it is essential for the UK to be seen as an attractive destination of study.”

Related news: Capita to deliver Turing scheme

Read more: Turing Scheme: half of participants ‘disadvantaged students’, government says

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