The Student Immigration System in Scotland

Written evidence submitted by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA)

This paper is submitted by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), the national advisory body serving the interests of international students and those who work with them.

It has some 550 institutional members including over 40 based in Scotland.

It is governed by a Board of Trustees, chaired by the former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Stirling. Also on its Board are representatives from the Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling and Anniesland College. Its President is Baroness Usha Prashar.

The submission largely reflects our evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on the Home Office’s Student Immigration System consultation, with the addition of a number of specific points relating to Scotland.

Summary of key points

· The government is not only proposing to introduce further measures to eradicate abuse but also, we understand, to reduce by a significant margin, the total number of international students coming to the UK as a contribution to reducing net migration.

· We support any properly targeted measures to ensure students coming to the UK (including Scotland) are genuine but cannot support the second objective – which we note does not appear in the Coalition Agreement. It would, we believe, be damaging to a highly successful industry after a decade of government support for increased recruitment, undermine that investment and result in a very substantial loss of earnings, jobs and international reputation.

· The majority of the proposals are, we fear, as likely to discourage well qualified students from coming to Scotland (the ‘brightest and the best’) as they are to discourage abuse.

· It is unfortunate that the government has chosen to use the concept of ‘migrant’ (which technically includes students in the UK for more than 12 months). These individuals, only temporarily resident, paying their full costs and having no recourse to public funds have, we would argue, minimal impact on public services.

· It is difficult to see therefore how a possibly substantial reduction in their number can create any advantage for Scotland whilst jeopardising millions in income.

· Much of the data used to justify the proposals is, we believe, inaccurate or misleading and largely pre-dates the impact of major rule changes introduced last year when the system was significantly tightened.

· We would therefore recommend that effort would be far better focused on additional compliance and enforcement of colleges in Scotland which remain suspect rather than yet further technical amendments to the rules so soon after the substantial changes made only in March, April and July 2010.

· If the system could place greater trust in the newly established Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) scheme and their students, this would enable UKBA to target its resources more effectively on identifying and dealing with any abuse.

Value of international students

1. The Committee will already know the various estimates and elements of the value of international students to Scotland. These figures are widely documented and accepted both within the sector and by government (including the Home Office).

2. Amongst a number of other benefits we note that many of the main source countries for student recruitment are also the Scotland’s key trading partners (China, India, the USA) and the potential damage of weakening links with these regions if numbers were significantly reduced.

Students and net migration

3. UKCISA recognises the government’s commitment to reduce net migration but believes that students, being temporary and not "economic migrants", should be considered within a separate category and outside the technical margins for assessing net migration.

· Non-EU international students pay the full cost of their education in Scotland, cover (and have to prove they can cover) the full cost of their maintenance in the UK, have only very limited rights to work with a prohibition on filling permanent vacancies, have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and can therefore not claim state benefits or housing etc and have visas only for a limited purpose and for a limited period.

· Students are also, of all the categories of ‘migrant’, least likely to be accompanied by dependants and least likely to move to settlement (see Home Office report ‘The Migrant Journey’).

4. It is difficult to see, therefore, what burden legitimate international students might be perceived to put on the state and why any ceiling or reduction in their numbers would create any advantage to the UK. Indeed, given the extensive efforts of the Scottish Government over the last few years to expand not only recruitment but also an increase in permanent skills (through Fresh Talent etc), a reduction in numbers of students – and post-study work entitlements – could well undermine earlier investment.

2010 tightening of the rules

5. The full controls of Tier 4 were only implemented in late February 2010 with the introduction of the secure online CAS (Certificate of Acceptance for Studies) system and mandatory reporting on arrival and attendance. Data prior to this, when a paper based system was in use (and open to abuse), is both unreliable and unrepresentative.

6. The other changes introduced later in the year – and following the then Prime Minister’s Review of Tier 4 – included

· Restrictions on level 3 courses and those with work placements

· The establishment of the Highly Trusted Sponsor scheme with robust criteria

· Secure, mandatory English Language tests (for non degree students)

· Raising the minimum levels of English to B1 and

· Restrictions on dependants and work entitlements

7. After multiple changes the system is now working reasonably well and needs most a period of stability for students, institutions and indeed for the UKBA whose staff often find it difficult to keep up with continual changes and where resources are already fully stretched.

Detailed comments on key proposals

8. The vast majority of the measures proposed appear to be relatively blunt instruments (such as raising still further the minimum level of English, forcing all students to go home to apply for extensions, withdrawing all work entitlements for dependents, limiting part-time work for all students and the closure of the Post-Study work scheme). They are as likely to discourage the "brightest and the best" from coming to Scotland in the future as they are to eradicate remaining areas of abuse.

Levels of English

9. The raising of the minimum standard of English from B1 to B2 (approximately ‘A’ level) will substantially damage recruitment from apparently low risk countries such as Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia but have far less impact on those presented as higher risk (largely English medium) countries such as India, Pakistan and Nigeria.

· In particular, university foundation courses could lose over 50% of their intake as t the majority of students have lower than B2 English – though virtually all of them currently successfully proceed to degree courses.

· There is also very substantial opposition from institutions – including top universities – to measures which undermine their autonomy to make appropriate admissions decisions. At the very least exemptions should be made for HTS and government sponsored students.

Returning home to apply

10. We recognise the government’s ambition to break the psychological link between periods of Leave but to force students to close their affairs in the UK (banks, accommodation, luggage etc) and to return home to re-apply is plainly impractical. It would merely result in both a massive loss of ‘business’ and an inability of the UKBA overseas to process so many new requests in a tight summer period.

11. ‘Progression’ within the UK/Scottish system from one level to another is one of the key attractions.

Dependants

12. The proposal to withdraw rights to be accompanied by dependants – for students studying for less that 12 months - will affect only a small number as only 1 in 10 students is accompanied but will have a disproportionate impact on more mature students and women from the Arab or Islamic world where it is unacceptable for women to live away from their spouses.

Work entitlements for dependants

13. Very few of the "brightest and the best" applying to leading universities for especially postgraduate and research programmes (sometimes lasting three or four years) would come to Scotland if their often well qualified partners were forbidden to work.

Part-time work during studies

14. The proposal to restrict part-time work for the students themselves, during the working week, to campus employment only but then any hours during the week-ends would be more confusing to employers (with both ‘campus’ and ‘week-ends’ difficult to define). It could also undermine integration with local Scottish communities and society. It would be preferable to retain the current rules of 20 hours per week during term time in any location – for degree students and above – and 10 hours for others.

Post-Study Work

15. The threatened abolition of the Post-Study Work scheme is generating particularly bitter and intense opposition from students already in the UK/Scotland. They believe this would be a substantial breach of trust and that they would have been seriously misled if applied to any who had already invested many thousands of pounds on UK degree courses (or above) with the prospect and on the understanding of being able to stay on for work experience to cement the value of their UK degrees in the eyes of employers overseas. Given the strategy of the Scottish government over the last few years, many would have been additionally hoping that they might be able to remain in Scotland over the longer term.

· If amendments are made we have argued that they should not be introduced until January 2012 at the earliest to protect those currently on one year or the final year of courses.

· The general view amongst the sector – and we understand in business – is that PSW/work experience is professionally essential in some subject areas (such as architecture) and that some form of PSW must be retained in the longer term for those with postgraduate qualifications.

· There may be some potential for this within Tier 2 but this would limit opportunities to only major employers who were registered sponsors and quite probably exclude the majority of SMEs.

Overall impact and recommendations

16. Taken as a whole, we believe that the measures proposed if implemented, would make the Scotland a far less attractive destination for legitimate international students and undermine the global success of this major export industry.

17. They would, therefore, in a technical sense, help to achieve the UK government’s target of a reduction in overall net migration (within these definitions) but at very real cost to the Scotland and could jeopardise years of investment at a time when Scottish universities and colleges need income most.

18. We would have argued that if eradicating abuse is the main objective, priority should be given to further efforts to minimise remaining areas of abuse through tighter inspection, enforcement and compliance of those institutions at the margins, where real risk exists, rather than yet more technical rule changes enforced on all.

19. We have also argued that if the UK /Scotland wishes to continue to welco me well- qualified students in large numbers, procedures for the majority of applicants should be simplified, freeing up resources which could then be better focused on areas of risk.

20. Finally we have argued that if substantial changes are to be implemented, they should not come into force until 1 November 2011 as large numbers of (well-qualified) students have already accepted offers, on the basis of the current rules, for courses commencing this academic year.

March 2011