The Office of National Statistics revealed last month that the total number of Tier 4 visas issued in the year ending September 2012 fell from 284,650 to 210,920.
However, it also said Tier 4 visa applications to study at language schools had plummeted by 76% from 15,930 to just 3,750, and at public and private FE colleges by 67%, from 99,295 to 32,900 (although there was a corresponding increase in Student Visitor Visa issuance).
UKCISA’s director of services and research, Beatrice Merrick, said the figures showed that genuine overseas students were losing interest in the UK.
“Even if a proportion of these institutions or students were misusing the student route, it seems implausible that the figure was as high as two-thirds,” she wrote in her blog last week. “The impact on genuine students and genuine colleges is clear – as are the direct and indirect knock on effects of loss of current and future business.”
“The impact on genuine students and genuine colleges is clear”
The government has said the figures show it is meeting its target to reduce net migration (which fell by 60,000 but is still way off the desired “tens of thousands” per year) by cracking down on student visa fraud with tighter immigration policies.
For those worried the UK’s education sector is losing appeal, it points to the around 1% growth in applications for visas to study in higher education – up from 154,575 to 155,820.
However, Merrick said that inequitable work rights, the loss of licences and bad publicity had led to business closures and a loss in confidence overseas.
She added that tertiary level enrolments – the government’s weathervane for the international education sector – could fall next given the important function language schools, FE colleges and independent schools (also down 17%) serve as pathways to UK universities. A report from the Knowledge Partnership in May showed that 50% of overseas undergraduate applications are made onshore.
“If these figures give us cause for concern, it is not over potential abuse of the student route, but about the impact of Tier 4 on the education sector as a whole, including the warning signals that in a year’s time even higher education could be seeing really significant falls in new student numbers unless there are significant changes soon in the government’s student immigration policy,” Merrick said.
“In a year’s time even higher education could be seeing really significant falls in new student numbers”
Her comments follow claims by UKBA chief John Vine last week that the agency failed to tackle a backlog of 152,000 notifications of “change of circumstance” concerning Tier 4 holders, meaning thousands may be breaking the terms of their visa.
Vine also warned that the shorter term Student Visitor Visa – which the language sector has come to rely on as access to Tier 4 has dwindled – could be open to exploitation. English UK, the peak body for English language schools in the UK, called the claim “seriously misleading” and blamed reporting issues at UKBA for students being wrongly accused of overstaying their visas.
Merrick agreed. “If the government finds there is significant abuse of the student visitor route they will rightly want to tighten it up. But is there any evidence? The visa statistics do not seem to me to show any.
“English UK have demonstrated that the unaccredited language schools have now largely disappeared from the scene suggesting the system has already been tightened effectively.”
A UKBA Spokesperson told The PIE News: “Our reforms protect the reputation of the British education system and genuine students from the abuse we saw in the past – only by doing this will the UK education system be able to compete in a global race.”