Immigration: The Points Based System-Student Route - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Agency implemented Tier 4 of the Points Based System for students without effective controls to prevent abuse. When it launched Tier 4 in March 2009 the Agency had only visited 30% of the educational institutions (sponsors) that it had licensed, and its electronic system to confirm that students had actually been accepted on courses was not made mandatory for a further 11 months. In the future, before new processes are rolled out, the Agency should put in place adequate controls and identify and actively manage risks before it implements changes.

2.  Constant changes have resulted in overly complex rules and guidance. The customer support provided by the Agency has not been good enough. Due in part to poor implementation, the Agency has had to make successive changes to address weaknesses in Tier 4 controls and administrative processes. Little regard has been given to the regulatory burden and costs of constant change and unnecessary complexity on the education institution. The timings of changes have not worked well with the academic cycle and although the Agency has consulted the sector it has not acted on their responses. The Agency's customer helplines are unhelpful and the named contact points promised for highly trusted sponsors are no longer available.

  • The Home Office should simplify the rules and guidance and keep further changes to a minimum in order to create a period of stability. If further changes are absolutely necessary, where feasible these should be timed to fit with the academic year. Regard should be had to the extra financial and regulatory burden of further changes.
  • The Agency should develop service level agreements which set out the responsibilities and service levels to which both the Agency and sponsors will adhere.

3.  The Agency has not minimised the regulatory burden on low-risk sponsors and students. The Regulators' Compliance Code stipulates that regulators should make full use of risk assessment in their approach. The day to day regulatory burden is the same for all sponsors regardless of whether they are high-, medium-, or low-risk. Similarly, the Agency does not discriminate sufficiently between high-, medium-, and low-risk students. The Agency should adopt the Regulators' Compliance Code, including the introduction of ways to reduce the regulatory burden on the lowest risk students and sponsors.

4.  The Agency has not taken enough action to remove students who are not complying with the terms of their visas. The lack of controls when Tier 4 was implemented resulted in an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 additional people using the route to come to the UK in 2009 to work rather than study. The Agency is right to prioritise 'high harm' migrants such as foreign national prisoners, but it is not acceptable to ignore such a large population of people living and working in the UK illegally. The Agency has only belatedly started to curtail the leave to remain of those who it knows are not studying and to follow up on those whose visas have expired. The Agency should deal urgently with migrants who are in breach of their student visas and should be clear about the circumstances in which it will remove them from the UK.

5.  Data on immigration is still based on highly inaccurate International Passenger Survey data. The e-Borders system for counting all migrants in and out of the UK still only covers 55% of flights and will not be fully rolled out until 2015 at the earliest. It is not good enough to wait for e-Borders to eventually provide 100% coverage to get robust data. The Agency should identify and make better use of alternative sources of data until e-Borders provides 100% coverage.

6.  Students are included in net migration figures but, according to the Home Office, students generally remain in the UK for fewer than five years. Australia, Canada and the USA treat international students as temporary or 'non-immigrant' admissions in their statistics and France excludes students from its temporary migration figures. The Home Office presently includes students in net migration figures. However, some academics and commentators consider that excluding students would improve the accuracy of net migration figures and allow the UK to compete more effectively in the international student market. The Home Office should work with the Office for National Statistics to begin reporting on net migration both with and without students.

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Prepared 4 September 2012