Visa 'crisis' hits home: Schools and colleges are losing overseas pupils just when finances are being squeezed

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With two children at school in Britain already, one Japanese family assumed that the third would join them. To their surprise, they found their youngest son refused for a visa.

Their surprise turned to alarm and then to disbelief when the boy was turned down twice more under the new entry rules brought in by the UK Border Agency this year. They went back to the agent in Tokyo who helps families find schools overseas and he assured them they were not alone. Many children were being turned down. He suggested an alternative school in the United States, and the visa came back within a week.

In what one school calls "a crisis verging on a national disaster", the UK's boarding schools are losing international pupils just at the time when their finances are being squeezed by the recession at home and the Government's demand through the charity law that they provide more free and subsidised places for poor families. And it's not just boarding schools suffering. Colleges and schools offering language and pre-sessional courses to prepare students for their studies are seeing a steep drop in numbers.

Not only are hundreds of prospective students being turned down – sometimes just because the clearance officers don't understand their addresses; agents admit that they are guiding parents to other English-speaking countries where visas are easier to obtain.

Worst hit by the high refusal rate are students from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and also those hoping to get UK visas in Mexico. "Word is going out that the UK is closing its borders," says Matthew Burgess, who, as deputy chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, has been in almost daily contact with the Border Agency to help iron out the problems. "Four out of 10 students are being turned down."

The schools are falling victim to the new entry requirements brought in to crack down on bogus colleges which sold "proof" of courses to help people to get student visas illegally. Educational institutions bringing in students now have to be licensed, a rule change which has brought the number down from an estimated 15,000 to 1,600.

Though the new system should have made it easier for students to get visas to attend licensed schools and colleges, bureaucracy, errors, misunderstanding and nit-picking by the people administering the new rules stand to lose the UK hundreds of students and millions of pounds in income in the coming year.

Schools such as Chigwell in Essex have worked around the clock to help students with their visa applications. But still the refusal rate for students from China is running at 85 per cent, when it was unusual to get a single student turned down in previous years.

Two students from China, who were planning to attend a language college in the summer to prepare themselves for A-levels at Chigwell, failed to get visas because they had not submitted the entry test papers for the language course, despite the fact that it was not a visa requirement.

"Trying to get to grips with the new visas system has been an enormous amount of work," says Alison Lord, Chigwell's international liaison officer. "If we don't get the students through, it will decimate our international programme which is important to the ethos of the school.

"We have had two months of great anxiety and our Chinese agent has lost face, which is very serious for him. China is not known as a hotbed of terrorists, and it is a massive market for us bringing millions of pounds into the economy. All this is being imperilled."

If people get refused on a technicality – one pupil from China was refused entry because she entered the name of the town where she lived twice – they have to appeal, which takes months. It's quicker to reapply, but then they have to pay again, says Philip Couzens, director of international students at Oundle School, near Peterborough.

"On the one hand, the British Council is sending out glossy magazines putting an enormous amount of effort into saying Britain is a good place to come. And on the other, the UK Border Agency is making it as hard as possible for people to get a visa," he says.

Students are being lost not just for one year but for seven – if they start at age 11 and carry on until the sixth form – and then for a further three or four at university, Couzens says. "It's verging on a national disaster."