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UK: Visa interviews rolled out, PhD students can stay

UK Home Secretary Theresa May today announced more major changes to the immigration system to ensure that student visas are not a “backdoor route” to working in Britain. More than 100,000 prospective visa applicants will now be interviewed as part of a continued clampdown on migration. Yet May also revealed an easing of conditions for those at the top end of the academic ladder – PhD and MBA graduates will find it easier to stay and seek work.

UK Home Secretary Theresa May spoke at the Policy Exchange think tank

"We welcome...the creation of a dedicated route for exceptionally talented MBA graduates to stay in the UK"

From April, graduating PhD students will be able to stay for 12 months to seek work or set up a business, while a further 1,000 visas will be available for graduating MBA students to stay via the Tier 1 exceptional talent route.

May outlined plans to radically extend the border agency’s face-to-face interview programme, “starting with the highest risk countries” while continuing the line of “attracting the best and brightest”.

“Welcoming legitimate students and identifying and rejecting bogus students is at the heart of our changes to the student visa regime,” she said.

In a point that will be contested by the sector, she added that “just by cutting out abuse”, student visas were down by 26% – “that’s almost 74,000  in the year to September”.

The announcements were met with mixed responses from the UK’s international education sector, with those representing English language and FE at the sharp end of visa adjustments, as we reported here.

“Entry clearance officers are just as fallible as everyone else”

Some are sceptical that interviews are an effective means of identifying bogus applicants.”[Visa] interviews don’t guarantee that decisions will be right,” said Tony Millns, chief executive of English UK. “When you become an ECO [entry clearance officer], you don’t have an intuition chip implanted. They are as fallible as everyone else – probably more because most of them are men.”

The Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) test rolled out in Australia did bring its own problems of implementation, as we have also reported on The PIE.

“It’s good to see PhD students can stay on for a year,” Dominic Scott, chief executive of UKCISA told The PIE News. “But the increase in interviewing has been bounced on us before Christmas. It’s depressing and potentially disastrous.”

The programme will expand to include almost half the number of student visa applications

May said she would extend the interview pilot launched earlier this year in which more than 2,300 prospective students were interviewed. “The lesson from that pilot was clear – abuse was rife, paper-based checks weren’t working, and interviews, conducted by entry clearance officers (ECO) with the freedom to use their judgement, work.”

The new regime will expand to include considerably more than 100,000 students (almost half the number of student visa applications) starting with the highest risk countries and spreading further across all routes to Britain “wherever the evidence takes us”.

At the Association of Business Schools (ABS), representing many MBA programmes, Professor Angus Laing, Dean of Business and Economics at Loughborough University was more appreciative that “steps are now being taken to resolve issues raised by business schools, universities, businesses and our international partners”.

“The increase in interviewing has been bounced on us before Christmas. It’s depressing and potentially disastrous”

He continued, “We look forward to further discussions with the Home Office on the detailed rules that will govern the award of these new visas and explore the opportunity for expansion of this scheme for all exceptionally talented international students graduating from our business schools.”

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, commented: “It is pleasing to hear the Home Secretary repeating the message that there is no cap on the number of legitimate international students and that the government is eager to encourage more students to come to the UK.” But she added that the increase in interviews results in “a danger that the UK is projecting an inconsistent message overseas”.

And Dr Jo Beall, British Council Director of Education and Society, noted that the additional hurdle of attending a visa interview may be offputting. She welcomed the confirmation there would be no cap on international students but added, “It is vital that only genuine students can get visas to the UK, but it is also vital that quality education institutions are trusted to assess academic and English language credentials.”

 

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