January 2009 issue

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Visa change in the UK

British education providers will be working with new UK immigration regulations in 2009, as the points-based system is phased in from March onwards. Jane Vernon Smith reports on the possible pitfalls and benefits of the new system as the details are fine-tuned.

The rules governing the entry of language students to the UK are about to change. The new regulations set out new criteria for providers and also give them new responsibilities as “sponsors”, responsible for the students at their schools.

These changes are due to be introduced under Tier 4 of the Home Office’s new points-based visa system (PBS). This will simplify the categories under which visa national students may enter the country. The General Student Visa will apply to those aged 16 and over wishing to study full-time in the UK, while the Child Student Visa will cater for children between the ages of four and 16, intending to study at independent schools.

The new rules have implications, not only for the students themselves, but also for course providers (see inset). The new regulations have been broadly welcomed by accredited schools – only accredited schools can be included on the new Register of Sponsors.

The general view is that PBS will improve administration of the visa system, by providing clarity, and putting an end to the infamous subjectivity of visa officers. In addition, the requirement for providers to be accredited, “will lead to a general rise in the standards, as unaccredited – and, therefore, usually poor quality – schools will find it hard to stay open”, says Naomi Cooper at Stafford House School of English in Canterbury.

According to Tony Millns, Chief Executive of English UK (which co-manages the Accreditation UK scheme), by mid-October 2008, around 120 non-accredited providers had enquired about accreditation from Accreditation UK. “But not all are proceeding to be inspected,” he says. In addition to these, he estimates that there are probably another 430 non-accredited providers, “but it may be that many of these are effectively bogus and know that they would not stand a chance of getting accreditation anyway,” he surmises.

Onus on schools
The reaction to providers having to take on greater responsibility for their students has been generally accepted, and even welcomed by some, although a greater workload is expected to result. In order to fulfil their role as sponsors, universities and colleges will be required to: keep copies of all their foreign students’ passports; keep and update their students’ contact details; alert the UKBA to any students failing to enrol for their course or taking unauthorised absence or stopping their studies.

“It will be more time-consuming, as it is adding to our duties, but we are confident that our systems will assist us in streamlining it as much as possible,” explains Joanne Sayer, WorkUK Manager at Twin Group in London. The company has already begun to implement the systems that will assist with this, she adds. Meanwhile, Cooper comments, “I am pleased that more responsibility is being transferred to the school…We are very efficient about recording attendance and keeping tabs on our students, so I don’t think we will have a much greater workload once these changes come in.”

Another area where the load of administration will grow is in the handling of visa applications, since providers will need to issue course applicants with a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS). This acts as a confirmation to the UK Border Authority (UKBA) that the provider is sponsoring the applicant and that the applicant will comply with the visa rules. As Cooper notes, this will mean slightly more admin for the school, “but, on the plus side, we will be able to track the visa applications of potential students very easily, and will, therefore, have a better idea of who will be granted a visa and when.”

Sayer has just one reservation about this. Having initially heard that providers would be given a direct contact at the Home Office, who would act as “account handler”, and with whom they would be able to build a relationship, it has now been revealed that this will not be the case, and dealings with officers will be random. “In the past, we have dealt with the Home Office in this way, and had several different decisions from different staff, thus creating more confusion,” Sayer notes.

Possible problems
The new transparent system means that students simply need to show Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies and sufficient funds (£800 (US$1,282) per month), in order to receive their General Student Visa. Yet there is an issue regarding the way in which course fees are presented. At present, course fees are sometimes quoted inclusive of accommodation. However, it is clear that, in the future, accommodation charges will need to be shown separately. “I believe that, if the accommodation element of the course is clearly specified, then this should be taken into consideration by the Entry Clearance Officer, as, of course, accommodation is a considerable proportion of the living fees needed by the student,” notes Sayer.

However, as Sue Edwards, Director of Academic Programmes at Kaplan Aspect UK and Ireland, points out, “This is one area of the new policy on which we do not have clear information. Further clarification is needed from the Border Agency.”

Another possible problem is that current rules dictate that complete beginners, below A2 level, should enter the country on a Student Visitor Visa – which carries with it no benefit such as work rights and is for six months of study or less – rather than a General Student Visa. For Sarah Greatorex, Principal of Colchester English Study Centre, this is the point of greatest concern in the new impending system. As she explains, “We have large numbers of long-term students staying nine months to one year, many of whom come in as near beginners, and would therefore have to apply for a Student Visitor Visa first, and then return home to collect a General Student Visa after six months.”
The full details of how the system will work in respect of such cases had not yet been clarified at the time of writing. However, while level A2 is categorised as a basic user, there does not seem to be scope for complete beginners in PBS.

Switching providers, question of qualification
From March, a student’s General Student Visa will be linked to their sponsor, so switching courses from one school to another will become more difficult to organise, although not impossible. This, providers view as a benefit. As David Wilkins, Principal of UIC, London, explains, “Students often use reputable schools to get visas and enter the country, and then shop around to find ever cheaper schools.” With red tape to go through to switch providers, this will not be as easy under PBS.

“We work extremely hard to assist prospective students to obtain a visa,” adds Edwards at Kaplan Aspect, “only to find in some cases they have gone to a cheaper, but perhaps lower quality institution once they have obtained their visa. The new system will prevent prospective students from using our staff resources, then doing a switch.”

One area about which Wilkins is less than happy is the current stipulation that students also need to be enrolled on a course leading to an approved qualification (awarded or approved by a recognised body). “I think many of our students do not want to take exams,” he says. According to Millns at English UK, this is an area still under discussion in relation to English language students, with a possible compromise that this rule stands only if/when English language students extend their stay.

Work and study rule
For Wilkins, the stipulation regarding limits on the amount of work experience undertaken is less controversial. Courses involving work experience can only be 50 per cent work experience, as a maximum portion. “We offer lots of work experience courses, and this is no bad thing,” Wilkins opines. “It will make the whole business more serious, and people might be able to see the benefits that can be gained from studying and gaining some practical work experience.”

Costs to sponsors
The additional costs that will be incurred under the new visa system (ie £400 (US£641) fee for providers to obtain a sponsor licence and £10 (US$16) fee to obtain a CAS seem to be proving one of the less controversial aspects of the new arrangements. It appears that the CAS fee will be passed on by providers to applicants, and in most cases will not be refundable if the student has a change of mind after the application has been made.

This is reasonable, as Wilkins points out, since the school will already have had to pay the fee. According to Sayer, Twin will not be refunding the fee either, “but we are putting procedures in place to double-check that the student wants to continue with the booking before they incur any costs.” One possibility, as Tony Millns, Chief Executive of English UK, highlights, is that providers may opt to spread the CAS fee across all students, “in effect raising admin or course fees by a few pounds for all”.

Agents, on the whole, are unperturbed by the changes, notwithstanding concerns about biometric testing requirements for visa applicants that are already in place. In Colombia, Paula Andrea Urrego of British Unlimited stresses, “we do not believe that these changes will impact on the attractiveness of the country, due to its high quality education, the opportunity to travel [to] Europe and the possibility of work[ing] part-time.” James Herbertson, Managing Director of UK inbound agency, Answer English takes a similar view, commenting, “Hopefully the results will be positive, as the UK will be seen as a serious destination with quality providers.”

The providers themselves are largely in agreement with this perspective, although there are worries that some students will be put off by the strictness of the new system. However, Millns comments, “The new process should not affect inbound student numbers to accredited centres [that] are on the new Register of Sponsors. It should entirely stop the flow of visa-national students to non-accredited centres not on the register, which is precisely what it is intended to do.”

Edwards adds a note of caution, believing that the way in which the changes are rolled out from country to country and how they are communicated to agents, sponsors, parents and prospective students is key to how enrolments will be affected. “How well the change is communicated in each country will directly impact enrolment from that country,” she says.

Tier 4: key points

• The existing Register of Education Providers is to be abolished. Instead, language course providers wishing to recruit from countries needing an entry visa must be licensed by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), accredited and on the sponsor’s register.

• Language course providers offering more than 15 hours of language tuition per week must be accredited by a UKBA-approved accreditation body: Accreditation UK, the British Accreditation Council (BAC), the Accreditation Service for International Colleges (ASIC), or Ofsted.

• Courses taken by General Student Visa holders will need to meet a minimum level of qualification; National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Level 3 or level A2 of the European Common Framework of Reference for Languages for those learning English.
• Beginner-level courses will still be available to visa-national students, but only under a Student Visitor Visa, which gives entitlement to study in the country for up to six months, and excludes other benefits, such as work rights. Institutions accepting visa nationals on the Student Visitor Visa need to be accredited, but not on the Register of Sponsors.

• Those providers that offer work experience as part of a course will have to restrict the work experience to 50 per cent of the total course.

Students, in turn, will need to:
• Be sponsored by a UKBA-licensed institution.
• Provide proof that they have the means to support themselves while in the country (cover full course fees plus UK£800 (US$1,282) per month for up to 12 months’ of study).
• Supply their fingerprints and be issued with a biometric identity card.
• “Show a proven track record in education”.

“Sponsors” will need to:
• Keep a copy of all non-EEA students’ passports
• Keep and update students’ contact details
• Report any unauthorised student absences
• Maintain accreditation/comply with UKBA

The new visa system will be used from March, with sponsors required to comply with record-keeping duties and students obliged to show sufficient funds and relevant education documents. However, the IT function of the Sponsor Management System, allowing electronic CAS numbers to be issued by sponsors, will be rolled out from autumn and finalised for use across the board by February 2010.

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.





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Intellect Agency  

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