Warming up the welcome

The Government is to make it easier for foreign students to come to Britain.
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The UK is risking its pounds 2bn overseas student market and its reputation by making it difficult for foreign students to get visas and enter the country, according to a survey to be published shortly by the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs (UKCOSA). Education institutions that spend money marketing courses abroad say that we are losing potential students to Canada, Australia and the USA, where immigration practices seem less arbitrary.

Even though politicians have been aware of the value of the overseas student market for some time, the feeling is that we're missing a trick when it comes to customer-friendly immigration practices. This is particularly sad given the warm feelings that some nations, such as China, Russia and India, have about UK higher education.

More than three quarters of universities and colleges reported some problems with overseas students obtaining entry clearance at British embassies abroad, the survey found. As many as 83 per cent thought they had lost some prospective students because of visa difficulties. And 78 per cent said students were arriving late for their courses because of these problems. The worst difficulties were experienced by potential students in China, Russia, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Students applying for short English language courses and for colleges of further education have the greatest trouble. And the most common reason given for students encountering visa difficulties was that the entry clearance officer doubted they would leave the UK at the end of their studies.

The findings will strengthen the hands of ministers who are planning a package of measures to streamline immigration procedures and promote British higher education around the world. Talks that have been taking place for six months are expected to bear fruit in the next few weeks. Four government departments (the Foreign Office, Home Office, Department for Education and Employment, and Department of Trade and Industry) are coming together to agree the reforms.

The measures would make it easier for bona fide overseas students to gain entry to study at UK universities and colleges. They would:

n improve the turnaround time for visa applications so that routine applications are dealt with within 24 hours;

n make it easier for overseas students to work while they're here;

n provide for enhanced scholarship programmes by boosting the Foreign Office's Chevening awards;

n give entry clearance officers better training; and

n provide improved information to student applicants so that they prepare their visa applications better.

"This is an acknowledgement that British higher education is important," says Hector Munro, director of export promotion at the British Council. "It's a key part of our relationship with the rest of the world because it affects the perception of this country. We want to encourage more people to experience it and to ensure that the quality of it is as good as it can be."

To this end, the Government hopes to increase the number of overseas students coming to Britain or studying in franchised courses abroad by 25 per cent over the next four to five years. It has also hired two PR companies, Shandwick and McCann Erickson, to promote UK higher education and its high quality as well as saying how culturally diverse and tolerant the UK is.

"The point of the new marketing campaign is to go out and get the new messages across," says Alan Barnes, director of the British Council's educational counselling service.

The Prime Minister Tony Blair is believed to be enthusiastically behind the new push which will concentrate on eight priority countries including China, India and Russia. On a visit to China last autumn he met the mayor of Shanghai who had studied in Britain and was therefore a good deal better informed about the UK than he otherwise might have been. Blair was struck by the strategic value of the overseas student market. People who are educated in the UK often go home to reach positions of influence.

The hope is that the new initiative will revolutionise attitudes towards overseas students among immigration and entry clearance officers. The feeling is that the processes work against students and colleges rather than with them, according to the survey which secured responses from 170 institutions. They are seen as inconsistent, complex, bureaucratic and slow.

Deborah Green, international student officer at Sheffield University, says: "The UK may be getting a bad reputation in certain countries. Entry clearance officers perhaps should think about the financial implications for the country when they're considering visa applications."

The feeling given by the survey was that students start from a position of assumed guilt or fraud. Students applying to study English in Britain are refused entry for all sorts of doubtful reasons: for example, their English is too good, or not good enough. According to Ashley Rowlands, director of marketing and business development at Bournemouth and Poole college of further education, Jordanian students have been told by entry clearance officers "Why do you have to go to the UK to learn English? You could learn it here at the British Council."

Ms Sarah Huws-Davies, international student adviser at the University of Wales, Swansea, says: "Although the regulations say overseas students can bring their families, quite often they're not given permission to accompany them. Students have told me that entry clearance officers have more or less said they're not allowing the family to accompany them - to make sure the students go back home."

The Foreign Office rejects the criticisms. A spokesman said that students naturally moan when they don't get what they want: "Everyone would like things done immediately. So would I. If 75 per cent of higher education institutions are dissatisfied, that would indicate that large numbers of students are refused entry, and that's rubbish."

He said that a lot of students are given leave to come to Britain and, having obtained entry, seek political asylum. A few may be genuine but the vast majority are not. Many of these individuals misrepresent their status to gain visas and then abuse their system. "As a consequence visa officers have to be on their guard," he said.