||Since the UK student visa review was first announced at the end of last year, many of those who sponsor students for student visas have been waiting with some degree of trepidation to find out how they would be affected by any changes. The amended version of the Tier 4 student visa system which was originally brought in just 12 months ago was finally announced in March this year and has received mixed reactions from different sectors within the UK’s export education industry.
The changes affect all aspects of the visa system, including work rights for students, English language testing for applicants, the accreditation of education providers and evidence of student funding, and effectively divides up the study abroad industry into different sectors, with different requirements imposed for different levels of study. Private providers of language courses or courses below degree level have been most negatively affected by the changes due to an anomaly regarding accreditation requirements for this group and it is this sector that have been most vociferous in their reactions to the changes.
From April 21, 2011, Accreditation UK, The Accreditation Service for British Language Schools, The Accreditation Service for International Colleges and the British Accreditation Council will no longer be able to accredit language schools and private colleges for the purpose of issuing Tier 4 student visa sponsor licences. Schools that are already accredited by these bodies will be able to sponsor a limited number of overseas students until the end of 2012, by which time they will have to have gained accreditation from one of eight other accreditation bodies on a UK Border Authority [UKBA] list (see box right) or have their student sponsor licence revoked. Currently the eight listed accreditation bodies have no remit to accredit private colleges or language schools, which is causing some concern for those in the language travel industry.
Tony Millns, CEO of English UK, which administers the Accreditation UK process along with the British Council, says that the changes put all language schools and private colleges in the UK in a confusing position. “The accreditation bodies on the UKBA list are saying that they are not legally empowered to inspect private colleges,” he says. “There are currently no discussions with UKBA regarding the accreditation process for language schools and we are suing UKBA. We have already taken the preliminary steps for this.”
Some language schools and private colleges in the UK are anticipating that UKBA will issue further guidance regarding how they can fulfil the new accreditation requirements in time but fears about the timescale involved are causing some concern. “The temporary cap on Anglo-Continental’s [student visa holder] allocation will not initially affect business, but it may become a hindrance if the accreditation process is delayed or is very lengthy,” says Guido Schillig, Managing Director at Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth. “This is obviously a frustrating situation for us and Anglo-Continental hopes that an announcement will soon be made informing sponsors how to begin the new accreditation process.”
While short-term students will still be able to come to the UK on student visitor visas for up to 11 months, those private colleges specialising in long-term programmes such as A-levels face an uncertain future. A group of private tutorial and sixth-form colleges in Oxford has grouped together to contest the new changes, which they say will ruin their business. Fiona Pocock, Deputy Principal of Oxford International College, relates, “We will no longer be able to sponsor students from outside the EU who are on full-time A-level or other pre-university courses. This will inevitably have a significant effect on our business and the local economy. Some of us will close, others will have to reduce in size and, in addition to the general loss of export revenue to the local economy, there will be staff and tutor redundancies.”
Another area of student visa rights where changes are causing some concern for education providers is student visa work rights and in this case, the changes have been less swingeing than feared. However, the distinction between student visa holders studying at universities, who can work for 20 hours a week during term time, and those at government-funded further education colleges, who are now restricted to work for 10 hours a week during term time, is causing problems for some.
John Mountford, International Director at the Association of Colleges in the UK, whose members are all government-funded further education colleges, says that they would like to see greater clarity regarding the different restrictions placed on universities compared with further education colleges. “Students studying on a higher education level course at a further education college will face greater restrictions than those studying on the same course at a university,” he says. “Yet our colleges face the same accreditation criteria as universities. We are discussing with UKBA the distinction between further education colleges and universities and why further education colleges are facing greater restrictions than universities. We are all Ofsted accredited already and are therefore operating at an equal level to universities.”
Student visa holders at language schools and private colleges studying on courses below university level will no longer be able to work at all during their time in the UK and Schillig predicts that this will have an effect on some student nationalities coming to study English in the UK. “The removal of work rights for students will affect the enrolments of a handful of students at Anglo-Continental, particularly from South American countries, as international students value the opportunity of gaining some work experience in an English language environment as a supplement to their classroom studies,” he says.
However, a threat to remove all work rights for students after completing a university course in the UK has not become a reality in the new visa changes to the relief of many in all sectors of the industry. As many international students first enter the UK on language or secondary education courses, with a view to going on to higher education and eventually working in the country, this proposed restriction would have had far reaching consequences for the whole industry. While the Post-Study Work Tier 1 visa route will be closed from April 2012, students graduating from a higher education course will be able to switch to a Tier 2 visa, which will allow them to work in a graduate level job as long as they are sponsored by an employer and the salary is above UK£20,000 (US$32,626) per year.
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, says that the availability of post-study work opportunities for international graduates is “good news for the UK”. She adds, “This is critically important in attracting international students to the UK, and without this we would be at a severe competitive disadvantage in comparison with other countries such as Canada, the USA and Australia. We hear repeatedly from international students how important it is to be able to deploy their skills by working for a limited period of time before going home.”
However, James Pitman, Managing Director Higher Education United Kingdom and Europe at school chain Study Group, says that the government’s decision to close the post-study work route shows a disregard for the results of its own consultation during the visa review period. “During the consultation process, the National Union of Students conducted a survey of international students in order to gain their perspective on some of the suggested changes,” he says. “Even though 62 per cent of undergraduate students said they would not have chosen to study in the UK without the post-study work route, and the government’s own consultation showed that only six per cent of respondents thought it should be closed, the Home Office will close it from April 2012.”
Foundation courses and English language requirements
University foundation course providers have also been affected by the new visa changes in a variety of ways. Previously, student visa holders have been able to apply for a visa to cover their foundation course and then choose where to study at a UK university. However, the new visa regime requires students to apply for one visa to cover one course only from April 21, 2011. This means that students will have to apply for another visa when moving on to a university course after their foundation course finishes. However, students undertaking a foundation course of less than three months and who have an unconditional offer to proceed onto a degree level course that starts within a month of the foundation course finishing will be exempt from this requirement. Foundation course students applying for a student visa will also now have to prove a minimum English language level of B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference when previously they were exempt from this restriction.
Pitman explains that a new requirement that students have a minimum English level of B1 before they start their foundation course is likely to have a negative impact on new enrolments. “The fact that 98 per cent of our international students are accepted by UK universities, yet 80 per cent commenced their study with us at sub B1 level, indicates that the government’s new English language level requirements are also ill advised,” he says. “If the government wants the UK to continue to attract the ‘brightest and best’, then they should let HTS [Highly Trusted Sponsor] licence holders carry out the expert assessment necessary, free of interference.”
All students coming to a UK language school to learn English will also have to prove that they have an English language level of B1 standard or above and those studying at all education providers, apart from universities, will have to provide a test certificate from an independent test provider. Schillig says that this might slow down the application process considerably. “Some of these tests are only available to sit on certain dates throughout the year, which will slow the application process down for some students,” he says. “This regulation will particularly affect government-sponsored students enrolling on courses at Anglo-Continental from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Libya, as these students were previously exempted from the requirement to provide evidence of current English language levels.”
Despite providing a test certificate confirming English language levels, students entering the UK could also be refused entry by a UK Border Agency Officer if their language levels are not deemed to be high enough. This has the potential to cause problems in the future as officers may not have the experience to determine language levels in students who have just arrived in the country. The guidelines state that any refusals will have to be confirmed by a senior officer.
The visa changes have yet to be fully rolled out in the UK and continued confusion over some of the regulations, such as accreditation of language schools and private colleges, mean that more changes are likely to occur in the future. However, many in the industry hope that future wholescale changes will be kept to a minimum in order for advisors and students to get to grips with the new requirements.
Millns said in a statement soon after the new changes were announced, “The UK’s international education sector, one of the few growth areas of the economy right now, has had five years of continuous rapid change in the visa system and requirements, and once these changes are introduced there should be no further changes for at least two years to restore confidence around the world that it is possible to come to the UK to study.”
UKBA approved accreditation bodies for Tier 4 sponsors from April 21, 2011
• Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (UK)
• The Bridge Schools Inspectorate (England)
• Schools Inspection Service (England)
• Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (Scotland)
• Estyn (Wales)
• Education and Training Inspectorate (Northern Ireland)
• Independent Schools Inspectorate (UK)
Approved accreditation bodies until the end of 2012
• The Accreditation Service for British Language
• Accreditation UK
• The Accreditation Service for International
• British Accreditation Council
• Church of England Inspectorate - Ministry Division
The UKBA has declared an intention to develop and maintain a streamlined application process for certain low-risk nationalities from this summer, including waiving the requirement to provide documentary evidence of maintenance and qualifications at the time of application. While the rules will remain the same for such applicants, they will only have to produce evidence if specifically requested to do so. The authority has stated that the list is based on statistical evidence regarding the levels of risk associated with certain nationalities abiding by student visa rules and will be continually monitored and updated.
The countries that have been designated low risk under the new Tier 4 student visa rules are as follows: Argentina, Australia, British National Overseas, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago and the USA.
John Mountford, International Director at the Association of Colleges in the UK says that the visa system should not make some nationalities “feel unwelcome.” He added, “There have to be clear statistics showing that some nationalities are more likely to need tighter controls and differentiation between nationalities may be appropriate. We work with UKBA to do our best for all students and want to continue with this.”
Summary of Tier 4 visa rule changes (March 2011)
• All schools, colleges and universities enroling student visa holders must have highly trusted status by April 2012 and be accredited by one of eight UKBA listed accreditation providers by the end of 2012.
• Degree-level students must have B2 English language level before starting their course (up from B1).
• From July 2011, students at language schools and private colleges will not be able to work during their study in the UK. University students can work for 20 hours a week during term time and full-time in the holidays while further education students at government-funded colleges can work for 10 hours a week during term time and full-time in the holidays.
• Students will have to sign a declaration that presented funds are genuinely available for use in coming to study in the UK and a list will be drawn up of banks around the world from where bank statements are not trusted.
• Students will only be able to bring dependents with them if they are studying on a postgraduate course of more than 12 months in duration.
• The post-study work route will be closed from April 2012. Graduating students will be able to get a Tier 2 work visa if sponsored by an employer.
• Student visas will be restricted to three years for those on NQF 3-5 level study (A-levels to Higher National Diplomas) and five years for NQF 6-7 level study (degree and masters programmes).