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Student visa system faces big changes

In an eight week public consultation that came to an end on Monday, the government has proposed alterations to the current student visa system.

These could result in the loss of the tier one post-study work route, a scheme that currently allows overseas students to remain and work for up to two years after finishing their course.

These changes will affect students from outside the UK, who accounted for around two-thirds of the visas issued to students in 2009.

With net migration standing at around 215,000 today, these plans come as part of a pledge to meet a target of 100,000 by 2015.

A major focus of the changes is the reduction of students coming to the UK to study undergraduate level courses.
Only “highly trusted sponsors” will be allowed to offer below degree level courses to adults.
Between April 2009 and August 2010, around 41 percent of sponsored students were studying at undergraduate level.

Immigration Minister Damian  Green pointed out that these courses can be areas of potential abuse, as some of them may be “as basic as tuition in CV-writing”.

Other proposals include tougher English language requirements.

This would restrict the entry of student’s family members into the country, unless they “qualify under their own right” for tier one or two visas.

This would also apply to the dependants of tier four students, who remain in the country for more than 12 months.

Rights to work are also to be tightened, including the suggestion that international students should be limited to work on university campuses on weekdays and for any external employers during the weekends and during academic holidays.

According to the Home Office’s recent report ‘The Migrant Journey’, one-fifth of students granted visas in 2004 were still in the UK in 2009, and of that number only six per cent were still studying.

To deal with this, the post-study work route may be dropped, as well as the introduction of procedure that required students to return to their home countries in order to re-apply, should they wish to extend their studies.

Despite these significant changes, the Home Office claims that the government recognises the importance of immigration in the UK: “The Government believes that immigration has enriched our culture and strengthened our economy.

“However, in recent years, the system as a whole has been allowed to operate in a manner which is not sustainable.”

In a time when higher education is already under threat, with 40 per cent cuts to teaching budgets, £7.1bn to £4.2bn by 2014, the proposals have received criticism from university leaders across the country.

Toby Milns, Chief Executive of the language teaching association English UK has drawn attention to the financial repercussions of dissuading international students from seeking education in the UK: “They keep courses and sometimes whole departments open.

“They are in some cases vital to the survival of institutions.”

Universities UK, a group of executive heads of 133 UK universities, states that funds from international students account for around nine percent of the sector’s income.

It also claims that many will question the introduction of these alterations, in light of the aftermath of restrictions placed on student immigration in Australia earlier this year.

The outcome of this policy change has been associated with a predicted worst case scenario of 35 percent fall in overseas applications and up to 36,000 jobs by August.

The University of Sussex has a large number of students from international backgrounds and in 2006 was voted “best place to be” by students who participated in the International Student Barometer (ISB).

The ISB independently tracks the experiences of foreign students in higher education.

In an official response released by the Students’ Union, the union condemns the proposals, criticising the assumption that the system is being abused, and believes that they will have “widespread damaging ramifications to the diversity and economy of UK universities”.

It continues by referring to the proposals as “hugely flawed”, “xenophobic” and “insulting”.

“We will not sit back and watch as our university community is torn apart for purely ideological reasons.

“It will only be a matter of time before the government comes to see how damaging these proposals would be to the sector and it will take many more years for universities to recover than the few months it may take to push these changes through.”

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