During the Parliamentary summer term, there was a campaign
by Universities UK which called for the easing of visa terms for applicants to
British universities and for students to be excluded from the government’s
immigration targets. These proposals met with considerable support both from
key figures in industry and a number of Conservative backbenchers. There were
also some signals that ministers within the Business department were
sympathetic. Since then, however, Home Office ministers have made their opposition
clear and the Home Office has just revoked the licence of one university,
London Metropolitan, to sponsor visas from overseas students.
Bringing young people from overseas into our university
system certainly has its advantages. For instance, their fees — typically
higher than those of domestic students — are a crucial source of revenue for
universities and colleges, particularly when they are threatened with a drop in
domestic applications thanks to the tuition fees hike. And there are benefits
to the wider economy too, both from those overseas students who return to their
home countries, perhaps to reach the top in their country’s political system or
business, taking with them a positive view of the UK and a network of contacts
here; and from the “brightest and the best” students who decide to remain over
But this is not the whole story. Britain is now caught in a
triangle in which three contrasting objectives — those of student recruitment,
immigration control and human rights — are in tension. All three cannot be met
in full; compromises will have to be made.
The overriding statistic which sets the context is that
student inflow now accounts for three fifths of all non-EU immigration. By
2010, the number of student visas issued had risen to 288,000, swelling to over
320,000 once their dependents are taken into account. Yet, controlling
immigration means controlling non-EU immigration for three major reasons.
First, it has historically been around two-thirds of the total. Second, we
cannot legally restrict EU inflow (other than from future new members).
Thirdly, anyway, EU arrivals are far more likely to depart again as part of a process
of normal exchange than those from poor Third World countries, who account for
much of the non-EU total.
Does this matter? We think of students coming to the UK for
a period of three years or so to do a course, but, according to a Home Office
report published in September 2010 more than a fifth of the 186,000 granted
student visas in 2004, were believed to be still here after five years. As this
was a purely paper exercise, it took no account of any staying on illegally.
Some had brought dependents too. More recently, a National Audit Office report
found that the UK Border Agency had implemented Tier 4 (the new student visa
regime) “with flaws which were predictable and could have been avoided” and
that the Agency had not dealt efficiently and effectively with over-stayers and
students in breach of the rules. It estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000
people entered the UK in the first year of Tier 4 (2009/10) with the intention
of working rather than studying.
How many are staying illegally is hard to estimate. What we
do know, is that between February 2010 and October 2011 a staggering 62,000
notifications were sent by sponsoring colleges to the UK Border Agency,
alerting them to the fact that students were not attending college. This,
incidentally, gives the lie to the idea that the problem is confined to bogus
colleges operating on the fringes of the Law. And it suggests that there can be
no meaningful measure of progress (or otherwise) on immigration control if
students are excluded from the targets.
The Home Office has taken important steps to tighten things
up. For example, when it was discovered that thousands of Pakistani student
visa applicants could not speak English, despite claiming they had good English
skills, it piloted a new system. Applicants are now required to have a
face-to-face interview with an immigration official before a visa is granted.
This scheme has raised the rejection rate from 20% to 43%, and the pilot
programme has been extended to 14 other countries. The government has also
tightened the law elsewhere, saying that non-EU graduates without an immediate
job offer for well-paid work should go home. These reforms are welcome, and
should be taken further, but there is a limit to what can be achieved. In a
country where there are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in
circulation, how is UKBA to find students who simply disappear – whether on
arrival or later?
Universities UK, in their submissions, stress the liberal
arrangements in the US, Canada and Australia, who compete with us for
English-speaking students. There is however one overwhelming difference between
their situation and ours – they have a tiny fraction of our population density
(ranging from 15% in the US to under 1% in Australia), in fact Australia and
Canada have traditionally wanted to grow their population, while population
growth is one of the greatest threats to quality of life in the UK, with its
impact on housing shortages, infrastructure overloading and extreme tensions on
Furthermore, if for any reason the state wants to deport
someone breaking the rules, the courts in the US and Australia, are much more
supportive of enforcing local immigration law than UK judges working with the
Human Rights Act.
This is the wider point that hovers over this debate: so
long as our courts remain dominated by Human Rights legislation, the UKBA has
to work on the assumption that anyone coming to this country from a poor Third
World country may choose to stay and become difficult to deport. This point
profoundly affects several other areas of immigration control, to the
exasperation of businesses and families seeking visitor visas alike. Sadly, as
long as the British courts are dominated by Human Rights Law, a choice has to
be made between allowing in more students from poorer countries and restoring
effective immigration controls to curb population growth. Reform of human
rights law is long overdue so that a better balance can be struck between