Michael Farthing: New student visa rules risk creating 'Fortress Britain'

Thursday 10 December 2009 01:00

Education broadens horizons but if the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has its way with student visa regulations, those horizons are about to narrow significantly for students at home and abroad, with disastrous consequences for the higher education system in the UK.

In 2008, the Government introduced a new points-based structure for visas for people entering Britain from outside the European Union. The system for student visas was tightened as part of this. Universities and other education providers now register and are vetted to act as "sponsors" for student visa applicants. So far, so sensible, and there are good indications that the new registration process has achieved its intended purpose of removing most cowboy providers. The latest UKBA proposals, however, go several steps further in a potentially catastrophic direction that directly contradicts the existing Prime Ministerial initiative to attract an additional 70,000 international students to the UK by 2011.

The proposals include a measure to raise the minimum level of student visas to degree level only, disallowing entry to university via a foundation route, and to Baccalaureate and A-level courses for many students.

Why does this matter? I am vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex – a research-led university with an international reputation and outlook, home to a School of Global Studies and a new School of Business, Economics and Management, with high numbers of applicants from outside the EU. We are known for an international approach to history, geography, politics and literature; our scientists collaborate internationally on exciting projects such as the Herschel space telescope and the Large Hadron Collider experiment and we are home to the latest thinking on development studies and education in the developing world.

Part of our international mission includes welcoming many non-EU students every year through carefully designed foundation-entry routes. So we are very disturbed that our plans and international reputation are jeopardised by proposals that will deny entry to this group of students.

But hundreds of other reputable organisations are likewise threatened.

Raising the visa entry threshold to degree level only will close the door to around 25,000 overseas students who enter UK universities annually via A-level or foundation courses in Britain. The effects would therefore be felt across universities, A-level colleges and independent schools.

The block on foundation year students is mystifying. The inference seems to be that they are somehow failures or below par. This misses the point that many secondary education systems around the world are not well-aligned to UK university entry in terms of academic level or age. But those systems produce hard-working and talented overseas students who are currently able to enter a UK university via a foundation course or A-level college, and go on to successful academic and work careers.

There is another proposal that visas should require a new high level of English language qualification. But foundation courses exist precisely to enable overseas students to reach that standard.

Why block the very courses designed to provide the language, cultural and academic skills needed to adjust to the demands of a UK university course?

Meanwhile the economic impact of losing these students would run into hundreds of millions of pounds a year, as they represent a major slice of the £5.3 bn in fees that UK universities receive annually from international students, and the further £2.3 bn those students spend off campus. Where is the sense of this in the current economic climate?

I have focused here only on the most problematic of the UK Border Agency's current proposals: others include restricting the right of non-EU students to do part-time work – an unfair and petty proposal that would deny students to improve their job chances in their home countries, while paying their way in the UK.

A British higher education is still much valued abroad, but we are competing for students in an increasingly global higher education market. Proposals that discriminate and close down opportunities for genuine students from overseas to study in the UK fly directly against our international ethos and ambitions.

Shut the door to this potential, and all the opportunities that the 21st-century global village has to offer will be denied to our students, the education sector and the wider economy. Never mind ivory towers – we are now in danger of creating "Fortress Britain", where bona fide students are excluded by suspicion and bureaucracy.

The writer is the vice chancellor of Sussex University

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