UK study visa: University bodies call for 'improved student experience'
The UK student visa system needs to improve in several aspects, from accessibility to monitoring. Source: Aron Van de Pol/Unsplash

A coalition of UK university associations and support organisations has called for the UK government to improve the student visa system meet its goal of getting 600,000 international higher education students in the UK by 2030.

Five areas for reform were proposed in the briefing document jointly produced by Universities UK, GuildHE, MillionPlus, the Russell Group, University Alliance and UKCISA.

“This is intended as a first step toward the co-development of a new immigration system; one that enables international student growth while maintaining the current high levels of compliance,” the document said.

Under the present immigration system, international students not only face an inadequate visa system, but a “hostile environment” when it comes to studying, living and working in the UK. Introduced while Theresa May was home secretary on 6 April 2012, these visa rules are designed to lower immigration figures by reducing the number of international students.

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, the nation has shifted its focus to attracting more non-EU international students. In its Immigration White Paper published last year, it announced plans for a post-Brexit single visa route for all non-UK domiciled students.

The International Education Strategy published on 16 March 2019 reiterates this intention, stating that the government will ‘…keep the visa application process for international students under review, with the aim of improving the customer journey both for students and their sponsoring institutions’.

As the system is reviewed by government, the coalition outlined several principles and actions that could be taken to achieve this reform. The new process should be one that is accessible, easy to navigate supports a diverse range of applicants and gives better customer experience to international students, according to the briefing document.It should be cost-effective and simple to administer for the UK government.

Universities should be able to understand and navigate this new system, with consistent decision making and reliable advice issued by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI). All higher education providers must be treated equally in this new fair and fully transparent system, too.

To improve customer experience, it suggested phasing out credibility interviews, ensuring costs are proportionate and internationally competitive, among others. International students in the UK pay visa fees higher than most competitor countries. Together with the yearly Immigration Health Surcharge, this totals an upfront cost of at least £1,248.

Current registration requirements, such as reporting to students’ local police station and the use of Biometric Residence Permits are to be eliminated and phased out respectively. According to an ongoing Home Office consultation to reform the process, the report noted that there are concerns expressed by universities over the stricter attendance policies tailored to Tier 4 students.

In all cases of course change and transition to work, in-country visa applications should be allowed, the document suggested, as part of ensuring any attendance monitoring requirements do not encourage the differential treatment of international students on campus.

The briefing document was released as industry groups and education bodies are campaigning for the UK Prime Minister to relax proposed reforms of the immigration system. Concerned by the prospect of Brexit worsening skills and labour shortages, the #FullStrength campaign – which includes London First, techUK, the British Retail Consortium, the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, UKHospitality, the Federation of Master Builders and Universities UK – wrote in a joint letter last week to the front-runners of the Prime Ministership to lowering the salary threshold proposed in draft immigration legislation from £30,000 to £20,000, among others.

Reinstating the two-year, post-study visa for international students to work in Britain post-graduation is also part of the campaign’s calls.

“Without the ability to access international talent, many of our world-class sectors are at significant risk,” the joint letter said.

“As the UK prepares to leave the EU in the near future, it is imperative that the government puts in place measures that will avoid employers facing a cliff-edge in recruitment, and works towards building a successful economy that is open and attractive.”

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