The Premium Service, which costs £8,000, provides institutions with a named account manager who can gives advice on the visa process and immigration rules. Institutions will also be able to request early checks on the immigration status of potential students and monthly updates on the progress of all of their students’ applications.
“Many are very much hoping that the service will be as useful as promised, especially given the fee”
The scheme follows a year-long pilot and will be available to all publicly funded highly trusted sponsors (HTS) from September and privately funded ones from November.
It should ease the pressure on institutions that have struggled to keep up with tougher compliancy rules introduced by the Coalition government (in the UK, a sponsoring institution is responsible for ensuring international students adhere to their visa terms, not the government). Many complain that the Home Office – particularly its now defunct border agency, UKBA – has communicated badly with the sector and been unduly hard on non-compliant institutions.
However, Dominic Scott, CEO at the UK Council of International Student Affairs, said that there were concerns over whether those manning the new service would have enough specialist knowledge.
“We are disappointed that our proposal for a graduated fee based on student numbers was declined”
“Many institutions are very much hoping that the service will be as useful as promised, especially given the fee, but they have also said they will expect education specialists to support them who can resolve complex issues and this has not always been the case over the last 12 months.”
Some also argue that all institutions should get the service for free, given what they pay already in border agency fees and staffing costs to cope with the tougher compliance culture. The London School of Economics was said to have spent at least a quarter of a million pounds on international admissions in 2012.
They add that the joining fee could result in a two-tier system, where smaller institutions get priced out and receive a deteriorated service; or opt in and pass the costs on to students.
Alex Proudfoot head of Study UK, which represents private Tier 4 sponsors, said: “We are disappointed that our proposal for a graduated fee based on student numbers was declined by the Home Office, because the one-size-fits-all charge of £8,000 will in reality fit only the largest institutions, i.e. universities.
He said independent colleges, many of which admit less than a hundred international students each year, would be particularly at risk. He also criticised the fact that very few non-university institutions were invited to take part in the Premium Service pilot, and had not had the same opportunity to assess its utility.
“Given the importance higher education institutions attach to Tier 4 compliance it is likely that a number will sign up to it”
That said, most sector bodies welcome the opportunity for better liaison with the Home Office. A spokesperson for Universities UK, the country’s peak body for universities, said that institutions may feel compelled to sign up despite the cost.
“It is too early to tell what the uptake will be at this stage, but given the importance higher education institutions attach to Tier 4 compliance it is likely that a number will sign up to it.”
Twenty of the universities that took part in the pilot have already signed up for the Premium Service, including Newcastle, Plymouth and Anglia Ruskin. The Home Office said it complemented other improvements to the student visa system, such as an email service providing a single point of contact for expert information on Tier 4 sponsor licence and policy questions.