“Let me be clear about students: we welcome students coming to study, but the fact is, too many of them are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out,” she told the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. “If they have a graduate job, that’s fine. If not, they must return home.
“I don’t care what university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students yes, overstayers no, and universities must make this happen”
“So I don’t care what university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students yes, overstayers no, and universities must make this happen.”
However, international education stakeholders have questioned the suggestion that abuse is rife or that universities are not compliant with current regulations.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree with [May’s] phrase “Students yes, overstayers no’,” Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, told The PIE News.
“What was worrying, however, and in many ways very misleading, was her continued suggestion that many university students stay on illegally after their visas have expired, that universities were in some ways responsible for this and that ‘university lobbyists’ objected to the current rules being enforced,” he said.
“No-one does that: we can just see how so many of the increasingly complex regulations could so easily be reviewed and improved to huge benefit for the UK.”
May did not announce any new initiatives to curb student visa abuse, despite recent Home Office consultation over a number of proposed measures, including raising the English language requirements to study in the UK.
It has also been debating “for some time” about reducing the acceptable visa refusal rate for institutions that recruit internationally, which was lowered to 10% last year, according to Scott.
Scott said that there had been some concern that there may have been a “premature announcement” about one of these policies at the conference.
“To find that neither of those things, nor any other initiatives, were covered was in many ways a relief,” he said.
The proposals have been subject to “well-informed and correct criticism” from the sector, Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of Study UK, told The PIE News.
“This may have encouraged them to consult more widely and perhaps delay any announcement until they’ve fine-tuned the details, so as not to have a negative impact on genuine students,” he explained.
May said that the government’s clampdown on student visa abuse has led to a reduction in international students, but added that they have contributed to a doubling of net migration figures, which she said are “still too high”.
Her emphasis on visa abuse, however, may “feed the perception internationally that the UK is closed for business and does not welcome students,” commented Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK.
“One step the government could take would be to remove international students from their net migration target.”