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

1  Implementation of Tier 4 of the Points Based System

1.The Home Office has responsibility for regulating migration into the UK and protecting the border, which it discharges through the UK Border Agency (the Agency). In 2008, the Home Office introduced the Points Based System to manage economic migration from outside the European Economic Area, which was implemented by the Agency. The Points Based System was devised with a number of tiers to allow for different types of work and study-related migration. This report covers Tier 4, the student route, which the Agency implemented in March 2009. Tiers 1, 2 and 5, the work routes were covered by our report in May 2011.[2]

2. We heard that the student visa system that existed before Tier 4 did not provide sufficient control over those using the route. In particular, students could attend any of 15,000 education institutions on the then Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills register and could change education provider without informing the Agency.[3] However, the Agency implemented Tier 4 and removed the previous controls before the new controls were fully in place. The Agency told us that it had decided on a phased approach to introducing Tier 4 at the request of the education sector.[4] However, it did not take a similarly phased approach to removing the controls that existed under the previous system.[5]

3. A key control under the previous system was the ability of entry clearance officers to assess the intentions of applicants on paper and, in some 12% of cases, by interview.[6] The Agency removed this control in March 2009 when it implemented Tier 4. Under Tier 4, the system switched to sponsorship of students by education institutions (sponsors) licensed by the Agency, with sponsors determining the intentions of applicants.[7] However, in March 2009, the Agency did not have a secure system in place for ensuring that applicants were sponsored; it relied instead on visa letters, which were easily forged. The Agency did not make the secure electronic system mandatory until February 2010. By March 2009, the Agency had only visited 30% of the sponsors it had licensed, visiting the remainder by summer 2009.[8]

4. Partly due to the lack of controls, Tier 4 initially saw high levels of abuse. As a result, the Agency has had to make successive changes to tighten up controls over sponsors and migrants using the student visa route. Sponsors and students have found it hard to keep up to date with the changes to the rules and guidance, particularly when sponsors have to communicate the changes to a network of agents overseas.[9] The guidance and rules have become overly complex and in some places conflicting.[10] The Agency is now setting up a new directorate to ensure that operational guidance makes sense and it has recently produced a 'plain English' version of the guidance for sponsors. However, the sponsor guidance still consists of over 60 pages and sponsors still have to read the immigration rules and student guidance in addition to the sponsor guidance.[11]

5. Sponsors and students need support from the Agency to help them to navigate the complex rules and guidance. However, we heard that customer helplines did not provide the advice that sponsors and students need. We also heard that highly trusted sponsors no longer have a named contact, even though this was promised as part of the original highly trusted sponsor scheme. [12] Almost a third of respondents to the National Audit Office's sponsor consultation said that the Agency had provided none of the support the sponsor needed to implement the latest changes to Tier 4 and only 15% of respondents said they received all the support they needed.[13] We were provided with examples of genuine students where the Agency's lack of flexibility and mistakes have led to real problems for students and their sponsors, in some cases forcing students to return home to reapply for visas.[14]

6. We heard from sponsors that the timing of changes to the rules were not compatible with the academic year. For example, in 2011 changes in the requirements for English proficiency and academic progression were introduced after universities had already made their offers; as a result, universities had to review all offers manually to see whether they met the new criteria. After universities complained about the timing, the same problem was created by the Agency in 2012 with the move to a five year limit on the length of time that students can remain in the UK under Tier 4; again, universities have to review existing offers to check whether they meet the criteria.[15]

7. The Agency consulted well with education providers about the initial introduction of Tier 4, but we heard that consultation about many of the subsequent changes to the route had been patchier. Sponsors also said that the Agency has paid little or no attention to concerns raised by the education sector in response to consultations. For example, the London School of Economics told us that detailed advice on why the original highly trusted sponsor scheme would not work was ignored.[16]

2   C&AG's Report, paras 1-2; Committee of Public Accounts, 34th report of 2010-12, Immigration: the Points based System-Work Routes, HC 913 Back

3   Q 84 Back

4   Qq 79-81, 83 Back

5   Qq 64, 69 Back

6   Qq 87-89, 95 Back

7   Qq 64, 69, 84, 90 Back

8   Qq 81, 85; C&AG's Report, paras 1.12, 1.15 Back

9   Qq 14, 86, 193-204 Back

10   Qq 26, 52-60 Back

11   Qq110-115, 119; Ev 36 Back

12   Qq 27, 29, 33-34, 44-45, 110, 115, 117 Back

13   C&AG's Report, figure 15 Back

14   Ev 35 Back

15   Qq 13, 14 Back

16   Qq 19, 24, 111 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 4 September 2012