Changes to UK visa system are putting off international students, poll suggests

by Ray Clancy on December 16, 2011

Overseas students do not feel welcome to study in UK as result of visa changes

Many international students believe that changes to the UK’s visa system mean they are no longer welcome to study in the country, according to a survey.

The survey by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) whose members include every UK university as well as many higher and further education colleges, found that almost one in five, 19%, disagreed with the statement that ‘the UK welcomes well qualified international students’. A further fifth, 20%, neither agreed or disagreed.

‘The fact that nearly four in 10 of those well qualified students who successfully gained places and visas did not endorse the statement that the UK welcomes international students is a very real cause of concern,’ the report concluded.

The poll did find that 70% of students applying from overseas found the visa application process quick and efficient, compared to 59% who said the same in 2009.

But over half, 52%, reported they had encountered confusion or difficulty due to changes to the visa system. Just 28% said they thought the cost of a visa was reasonable, down from 33% in 2009.

The survey found that changing the rules in the middle of an admissions cycle caused confusion or difficulty for more than half of the students, with a further 10% having to take extra English language tests or pre-sessional courses. Some of the students who had to take the extra English test were from majority English speaking countries such as Singapore and South Africa and found it ‘completely illogical’.

It also found that 70% applying overseas thought the cost of a student visa was now unreasonable. Fees have increased by more than 50% since 2009. Some 29 % of those applying overseas and 46% of those applying in the UK had to spend at least Ł200 more on documentation and biometrics, with 11% spending over Ł500 extra. It adds that significant numbers had to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to submit their biometrics, sometimes several times.

Some 25% of those required to register with the police found difficulties in doing so and 8% of those who obtained visas were initially refused and had to apply a second and sometimes third time.

The abolition of the Post-Study Work scheme was cited as having the single most negative impact on decisions to choose the UK. One student said 15 of his friends had cancelled their confirmed places as a result.

‘All of the students we surveyed qualified for visas. All of them wanted to come to the UK. Many of them will be the brightest and the best, accepted by our leading colleges and universities. It is essential, therefore, that we get these processes right, for the sake of continued growth in the sector and promote the message that in this field the UK is very much open for business,’ said Professor Paul Webley, chair of UKCISA.

‘It is widely recognised that international students are enormously beneficial to the education sector and to the UK more widely, and therefore the findings on their perceptions, in particular, is a major cause of concern,’ he added.

UKCISA is calling for the government to review its student visa process, initiate a positive publicity campaign, and reject any suggestion of further controls on students or visas. It also wants an urgent announcement of detailed procedures for the new, more limited, visa routes for working after study.

‘Given the UK’s relentless focus on net migration, immigration abuse and student visas, recently played out in the media around the world, it is not surprising that even amongst those who have chosen to come this year there are concerns about whether the UK continues to be one of the most attractive destinations for well qualified students,’ said Dominic Scott, UKCISA’s chief executive.

‘There is a growing concern that this could be an early warning sign of larger reductions next year unless action is taken urgently. With the announcement by Australia of its new PostStudy Work scheme, it is quite possible that significant numbers will be attracted to go there instead and that the real impact on numbers choosing the UK will only be felt in 2012,’ he added.

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