Student Visas - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Professor Edward Acton, Chair of the Universities UK Working Group (SV45)


There is mounting concern among universities over the changes to the Student Immigration System proposed by UKBA in its current Consultation. Universities UK asked me to chair a group to protect Higher Education interests in the matter.

The key question I pose here is whether the government intends to promote or reduce UK recruitment of bone fide non-EU students in Higher Education. The answer might seem obvious, so forthright are No 10, the Foreign Office and BIS on the matter and so vast are the economic, financial and cultural benefits to universities and the country. But close study of the consultation paper reveals that UKBA is set on a course which, if not altered, will savagely cut legitimate HE recruitment.

This is partially obscured by the Consultation's intermittent focus on visa abuse. But the proposals for tackling abuse will do much less to eliminate it than alternative proposals I put forward. On the other hand, what UKBA's proposals would do is drastically reduce thoroughly legitimate HE recruitment. Gravest would be the impact on pre-university pathway courses, costing universities c £1 billion in fee income alone. The measures would amount to a "hostile act" against Britain's universities.

If the goal is drastic cuts in sub-degree provision while protecting universities, it would be much more effective to frame policy explicitly in those terms and I suggest the steps to be taken.

UKBA's determination to cut non-EU student recruitment, I explain, is based on thoroughly unreliable data used in the Migration Advisory Committee's (MAC) November 2010 report, Limits on Tier 1 and Tier 2. MAC considered itself obliged by the Home Office to rely on data collected by the International Passenger Survey (IPS), even though MAC itself is deeply unflattering about the reliability of those figures. On that basis it arrived the level of cuts it recommended to Tiers 1 and 2; the same logic applied to the student route points to cuts which would involve halving non-EU HE recruitment even if all other Tier 4 recruitment were banned.

MAC's disquiet over IPS's implausibly low outflow figures led it to make its own outflow estimates. These would reduce by half the overall non-EU net migration figure on which all MAC's (and UKBA's) visa-reduction recommendations are based. MAC's November report left unresolved whether the IPS or its own estimate of student outflow is more accurate and thus UKBA has continued to rely on IPS figures.

I indicate a way to establish beyond reasonable doubt which estimate is more accurate, using the meticulous data collected by the HE Statistical Agency, the Home Office's visa records, and eBorders passenger flight mandate data. If successful, the government will have developed a superior data source for policy in this area.

I end by outlining the dire consequences of leaving the discrepancy unchecked and allowing policy to continue on its current trajectory.

1.  To promote or restrict recruitment of legitimate international HE students?

The key question for universities is whether the government intends to promote or restrict our recruitment of bone fide non-EU students in HE. On the need to root out remaining abuse, to eliminate all bogus use of Tier 4 and any illegal overstaying, we are at one. Indeed, UUK's own proposals on this are more rigorous than those of UKBA. But what is not clear is whether the government wishes to cut recruitment of thoroughly legitimate international HE students.

The answer might seem obvious. The Prime Minister has recently underlined Britain's welcome to legitimate overseas applicants, the Home Secretary appears to do so in her introduction to the Consultation, and both Vince Cable and David Willetts have been entirely supportive.

Anything else would certainly be surprising. Higher Education is now a major British export in a market set to grow rapidly. In 2008-09, as the Home Secretary points out, the combination of International fee income and personal off-campus expenditure by international HE students already approached £5 billion. This has become a vital income stream for universities and, indeed, for the wider economy. In a tricky funding period, most universities plan to expand international numbers in the immediate future. The ability to do so reflects and enhances the reputation of UK HE internationally: it is a Performance Indicator in international league tables. Culturally, the international student presence is a key to ensuring our Home students prepare for and excel in a global graduate market. In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, many courses are only made viable by a substantial proportion of enrolments from outside the UK and EU. The UK's international alumni provide a healthy anglophile network among public and private decision-makers in every one of our trading partners.

2.  University unease

A cursory reading of the Home Secretary's introduction and the Consultation's language might give the impression that where student migrants are concerned, all that is envisaged is the elimination of abuse. "We need to ensure that the number of international students coming to the UK is broadly in balance with the number leaving." (Consultation, 2.9) If this were the consistent approach it would follow that, provided they leave promptly, a strong flow of legitimate international students is thoroughly healthy. There would be active government support for education's rapid climb among Britain's export sectors and in particular for the magnetic power of our Higher Education, in which the UK punches vastly above its weight - only one in a hundred of the world's population but one in seven of the world's top 200 universities. While in the UK, non-EU students do not acquire any settlement rights; by law they have limited access to UK benefits; when their Tier 4 visa expires they are required to leave the country, bar that small proportion to whom UKBA deliberately chooses to grant an alternative visa; those in HE pay non-EU fees precisely on the grounds that their primary home is outside the EU. This common-sense approach lies four-square with the interests of British commerce, the balance of payments, an export-led recovery and, it seems, the aspirations of No 10, HMT, BIS and the Foreign Office. It encourages a continued rise in British recruitment of genuine students, unconcerned that when recruitment is on an upward trajectory there will be an increase in "net migration" of a distinctive and thoroughly desirable kind - just as there will be net emigration in years when recruitment drops. Visa compliant international students are, as it were, lifted out of "net migration" and warmly welcomed not least for lavishing foreign currency on British goods and services.

Even Migration Watch appears to endorse the value of genuine student migrants, remarking last month that "It is important to realise that genuine students are not an immigration problem; most return at the end of their courses (to be replaced by others)."

But close study of the Consultation's proposals shows that UKBA's approach to temporary student migrants precisely parallels non-student migrants - if their course keeps them in Britain for more than a year they are part of the problem. The underlying analysis on which UKBA is basing its policy indicates that the real purpose is to cut numbers as such, even if this means cutting recruitment of non-EU students who are thoroughly genuine and fully compliant.

3.  Tackling Abuse

Given that the real purpose is to squeeze out abuse, the most effective measures would be (a) to stiffen sharply the accreditation rules so that all institutions sponsoring student visa applications bring their compliance record much closer to the standard of those granted Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status and in particular to the standard of universities where, according to the UKBA's December paper on Overseas Students, noncompliance averages at most 2%; (b) to make significant deposits obligatory for Tier 4 visa applicants; (c) to consider seriously making private health insurance obligatory for all; and (d) to use improved UKBA systems (and eBorders appears to have the capacity) to ensure that all sponsors are given swift data on when students they have sponsored enter the country, leave the country or are granted a non-Tier 4 visa. These steps would do more to eliminate abuse than the Consultation proposals. They would enable HTS to monitor with full precision the visa compliance of those they sponsor.

4.  Pre-University Pathway Courses

Instead of effective steps to squeeze remaining abuse right out, the proposals in the Consultation would not only fail to address abuse from high-risk countries (predominant among which are countries where English is one of the official languages) but would also directly hit legitimate recruitment, including HE recruitment.

Indeed, if implemented in their current form, the changes proposed would amount to a hostile act against British universities, those "jewels in our economic crown" as Ministers so well describe them.

The greatest threat is the impact the UKBA's proposals would have on pre-university pathway courses (a set of courses quite distinct from sub-degree awards), which provide pre-university preparation for large cohorts of international students who would not otherwise come to the UK. The issue is epitomised by the proposal to raise the minimum English language competence required for UK entry to study to a level known as B2. A B2 speaker of English is instantly recognisable to most British people: it is the level of English spoken by educated people in Northern Europe and by good high school graduates in some parts of the Commonwealth. It is more seldom achieved in Southern Europe and almost never in East Asia. To make this the minimum for entry to the UK is incompatible with the interests of Britain's universities and Britain's economy. Upwards of 40% of the international students at our universities come via a pre-university pathway course; upwards of 70% of recruits to those courses would be barred by this change. Implement it and HE fee income would swiftly fall by c£1 billion, and a great deal more when university income derived from pathway provision itself is added. Pre-university pathway courses, which are typically delivered on campus either by universities themselves or in close partnership with private providers, are a necessary link in the chain of university recruitment. This is especially true of undergraduate recruitment to the UK from non-Commonwealth countries, where the norm is to leave school only having completed the equivalent of AS level. For recruitment from countries where English is not one of the official languages, combining academic preparation with intensive English language tuition from native speakers is essential. Sever the link and the damage inflicted on our universities will be severe.

Almost as damaging in its present form is the proposal to shorten drastically the permitted length of pre-sessional courses. Only a little less harmful is the proposal to insist on English language testing by a short-list of "secure" English language Tests (SELTs), despite their unavailability in much of the market, the drawbacks to each of the testing systems available, the invasion of university autonomy involved and the apparent trampling over devolved powers.

There is a third set of proposals which, while less directly destructive, are deeply discouraging to British recruitment and guarantee competitive disadvantage - to end the recently introduced possibility of time-limited leave to seek post-study work after graduation, to limit the right of international students to take part-time jobs (an ugly taste of apartheid and not easily administered) and to restrict dependants accompanying Tier 4 students. The message of these unattractive proposals is that the UK's attitude is unwelcoming even towards legitimate international students. Unsurprisingly, the British Council warns that the impact of the current Consultation (like those of the last government) is already proving grim.

5.  Protecting universities

Looked at closely, the UKBA proposals turn out to be better designed to cut recruitment rather than abuse. Yet the government remains insistent that it does not wish to damage university recruitment. If that is the case, and the government's wish is to effect drastic reductions in sub-degree provision but genuinely to protect universities, it would be much more effective to frame policy explicitly in those terms and take the following steps:

  • (a)  Exempt pre-university pathway programmes from the changes proposed, from the proposed B2 English language criteria, insistence on SELT testing , the curtailing of pre-sessional course length and as many of the other restrictions as feasible. Grant this exemption.
  •    EITHER to a new category of strictly defined pre-university pathway course,
  •    OR to those institutions on which the UKBA has accorded and continues to accord HTS status (or to a new HTS subset comprising HE institutions and the pre-university pathway providers they endorse and vouch for).
  • (b)  In doing so, actively demonstrate and publicise across the world that students recruited to British HE and pre-degree pathway courses by these carefully monitored and genuinely trusted HTS institutions are warmly welcome. That way, the current damage to HE recruitment efforts can be halted and reversed and the threat to the financial stability of UK universities removed. That way the Home Secretary's express wish can be delivered for "a visa system which encourages the entry of genuine students coming to study legitimate courses." (Consultation, 1.6)

The present proposals do no such thing. In contrast to the Coalition's May agreement, which focused specifically on reducing economic migration and said nothing of cutting genuine students, they treat students as no more attractive than worker migrants and send legitimate students a raft of deeply off-putting messages. Yet whereas the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was asked to undertake meticulous weighing of the economic and social pros and cons of economic migration, there has been no equivalent assessment of temporary student migration: perhaps because here the pros so obviously and massively predominate.

6.  Does Parliament have confidence in the International Passenger Survey (IPS) as a robust guide to "Net Migration"?

In terms of the national interest, policy-making and due process, what makes the situation so disturbing is that the UKBA's determination to cut non-EU student recruitment is based on thoroughly unreliable data.

The detailed policy is based on the work of MAC, whose major report, Limits on Tier 1 and Tier 2, was published in November 2010. MAC has taken as its remit the aim of cutting "net migration" to "tens of thousands" during this parliament. It has taken it to be government policy that in assessing the scale and make-up of current net migration, and in identifying the steps needed to reduce future net migration to "tens of thousands", it is obliged to rely on the data collected by the International Passenger Survey (IPS). MAC's own opinion of this data is not flattering.

It notes that the IPS was not established to measure net migration. It notes that it has been known to significantly undercount outflows in the past, and strongly suggests this is continuing to happen. It regrets the very small sample used (1 in 500 passengers entering and leaving). It spells out graphically the very low level of confidence that can be placed in the accuracy of the net migration figures IPS yields. Its own estimate of non-EU outflow for 2008 (Limit on Tier 1 and 2, p.301), drawing on the UKBA's recent study The Migrant Journey, suggests a non-EU net migration figure less than half that of the IPS. It observes that the Annual Population Survey for 2009 puts net migration of non-EEA nationals at 53,000, a fraction of the IPS non-EU estimate of 184,000. It regrets that because IPS has never asked those departing their original reason for entry or the visa route that brought them to the UK, it does not provide the data needed to disaggregate the contribution made by the three migrant routes—work, study and dependants. Yet it is on this desperately fragile and in key respects, I suggest below, demonstrably false data that MAC has based the calculations which threaten to wreak such havoc.

MAC spelt out its approach when recommending the level of cuts to be made to inward migration via the work route. It took the IPS figure for total net migration in 2009 (196,000) and set as the target over the next 4 years that this be reduced to 50,000, i.e. a reduction of 146,000. Since 12,000 of the 196,000 are attributable to British, EU and other minor factors not susceptible to visa control, it concluded that the necessary 146,000 reduction must be borne by the three routes (work, study, dependants) responsible for the remaining 184,000. MAC then decided that the reduction to be borne by each of those routes should be in proportion to its contribution to net migration recorded by IPS. Because IPS outflow figures are so unsatisfactory, MAC decided it will have to assume that each route contributes to net migration in the same ratio as it contributes to inflow (however counter-intuitive, given that students typically stay markedly shorter than economic migrants).

The proportions given are:

Study60% (Tier 4)
Family20%, (13% of which are connected to Tier 4 migrants)

From this flowed MAC's recommendation last month that inflow via the work route should be cut by 20% of 146,000, ie 29,200, by the end of this parliament.

The direct corollary is that inflow via Tier 4 should be cut by 60% of 146,000, ie 88,000, by the end of this parliament. On 2009 IPS figures, this means cutting the inflow of non-EU students from 163,000 to 75,000.

According to the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) figures for 2009-10, first year course enrolments of non-EU full-time students in HE alone were 140,000. I should emphasise that this includes some but not all pre-university pathway numbers and that a small percentage are graduates already in the UK progressing to a higher degree.

Thus even if recruitment at all other levels was banned outright, non-EU recruitment to HE would have to be slashed by almost 50% to meet UKBA'S target. If this juggernaut is left to run as programmed, it will smash into the UK's "economic crown jewels".

Every other country in the world is delighted to nurture and expand a trade surplus in HE. The US and Australia are currently vigorously nursing self-inflicted wounds arising from poorly targeted measures against abuse and negative perceptions by prospective international students. Both, of course, relish the prospect of Britain being misled by IPS into actively surrendering market share.

7.  An exercise to cross-check the IPS figures

The stakes are sufficiently high for the country that I would urge careful cross-checking of IPS data.

In 2008, the IPS estimates that 126,000 non-EU students entered the country and just 34,000 previously occupied as students departed. This outflow figure seemed so implausibly low to MAC that it devoted much of its detailed Appendix B to the matter. Using conservative estimates of the average student stay, and making generous allowance for up to 10% securing a work visa after ending their studies, MAC estimated that the number of those who entered the country and departed in 2008 was 80,000, not 34,000.

Faced with the yawning gap between the two estimates, MAC identified only two possible explanations: "First, a proportion of students may be overstaying their legal right to stay in the UK, or second, the IPS may potentially undercount outflows of students." (Limits to Tier 1 and 2, p 300) There the matter was left hanging and with it the good health of one of Britain's major exports.

Which is the true explanation? A clear answer emerges from a study published last month by UKBA itself, Overseas Students in the Immigration System, based on a sample of 17,000 non-EU students sponsored for a visa. Using data from eBorders, flight mandate information supplied by airline carriers and incomparably more accurate than IPS, it was able to track these students with what is in relative terms pinpoint precision.

The analysis indicated that noncompliance by university students was at most 2% and the average among other education bodies at most 14%. It also indicated that universities are currently responsible for about 50% of students sponsored and rather more of those who enter the country, the remainder being sponsored by other educational institutions. It is possible to track the HE half of the cohort with some accuracy given the legendary precision of HESA. 102,000 non-EU students completed HE awards in 2009-10. Making allowance for those who may have secured a visa to work, or progressed to a higher degree, or been non-compliant with visa-expiry there remains a figure of c 80,000 who completed their degree, whose leave to remain expired, and who left the country. This HE figure is more than twice the total IPS outflow figure—and that is before adding those among the c 45% of non-EU students studying outside HE who also left the country.

The conclusion is that noncompliance cannot account for the yawning discrepancy between MAC's estimate and the IPS figure. MAC's analysis leaves only one explanation: the IPS (massively) undercounts ex-students leaving the country.

There is a conclusive way to test the relative veracity of the IPS and MAC estimates. HESA holds the names and dates of birth of the 102,000 non-EU completers of 2009-10. I would urge the Committee to ask the government to commission a brisk but careful analysis of these 102,000, taking due care with Data Protection. First, check their names and dates of birth against visa records to establish which among them had no valid reason to remain by the end of 2010. Second, take that list—c 80,000? —and use eBorders records to check how many duly left the country and how many did not. Having completed the exercise, attempt a similar exercise, as far as data permits, for non-EU students outside HE—or extrapolate from the HE exercise. Add the two figures and compare the sum to the 34,000 proposed by the IPS and the 80,000 proposed by MAC.

Should the MAC estimate prove superior—and it is likely it will itself prove an understatement—the government will, to its credit, have developed a much more accurate and authoritative method of measuring non-EU net migration to replace the IPS. UKBA has very courteously invited UUK to make a short-term secondment to work with the Agency in shaping the measures to follow the consultation. Might the Committee recommend the exercise I propose as part of that collaboration?

8.  The alternative

If the government is determined to be guided by IPS data and to discourage international HE recruitment, we need certainty about the matter. We can then drastically curtail the considerable British resource being spent on seeking to attract international students by our embassies, by the British Council, by BIS and by every university. William Hague can rethink his announcement earlier in January that "as British Ministers fan out across the world in the months to come we will be promoting British education as well as our economy as a whole." HMT can build the concomitant fall in export earnings into its forecasts. HEFCE can revise its list of "at risk" institutions. Universities can plan how to cope with the rapid loss of income, shedding of jobs and singularly ill-timed damage to university cities and regional economies that will follow.

January 2011

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Prepared 25 March 2011