Tough immigration laws mean foreign children applying to be educated in UK boarding schools are subjected to “demeaning and humiliating” checks that treat them “like illegal immigrants”, boarding school leaders have said.
Headteachers also claimed that the huge administrative burden of overseeing applications from non-EU pupils now meant that schools were being treated “as a branch of the Home Office”.
Recent rule changes meant that some schools were at risk of losing their all-important “highly trusted sponsor" status – which allows them to receive overseas pupils and vital income, headteachers warned.
School leaders spoke out as they prepared to join university leaders, politicians and international representatives at tomorrow's “Tier 4” conference on student visa issues, organised by the Home Affairs Select Committee and Regent’s University.
Foreign students provide a substantial source of income for boarding schools, colleges and universities, but clampdowns in recent years to curb immigration and prevent terrorism mean the process has become more complex, prompting a litany of complaints from UK education providers.
John Newton (pictured) is the headteacher of Taunton School in Somerset, which educates children from 35 different countries. He said the duty for non-EU students to show their passports to the local police station once a year meant they were “treated like criminals from the word go”.
He said that schools have also seen situations where parents hoping to send their children to top British schools have to prove that they have a year’s school fees ready – only to find that a last-minute exchange rate change means their visa application fails.
Schools also have to take responsibility for checking pupils have their correct vaccinations and keep close tabs on them and their movements during school holidays and when they exit the country.
“Why is this country treating highly respectable people from around the world like second-class citizens?” he said. “Why is the government not intelligent enough to ensure that the children who come to me as students are not part of the ludicrous immigration targets it has set itself?
“Why are we treating them with such disrespect and dishonour when they come to my town? They come and spend money in the shops, they fund the jobs of the employees in this school and we treat them as though they should not be here.
“It’s pandering to this immigration terror we have that is so backward and so arrogant. We should limit who comes to our country but these students are fuelling universities with great minds, they are fuelling our schools and communities.
“We are doing a universal good here and we are being penalised for what we do.”
He said the threat that he could have his school’s highly trusted sponsor status taken away at any minute – if more than 10 per cent of visas from pupils it sponsored were refused – hung like “a sword of Damocles” over his head.
Until now, institutions could have a 20 per cent refusal rate before risking losing their status – which is essential to recruit from overseas.
Robin Fletcher, the national director of the Boarding Schools' Association, said that the “confused and self-defeating” rules of the system contradicted government drives to recruit more overseas students to UK schools from countries such as China.
He said: “The simple solution is for the UK Visas and Immigration service (UKVI) to think more creatively and stop treating school pupils as potential illegal immigrants, which obviously they are not.”
There are around 24,000 overseas school pupils studying at UK boarding schools, according to the Independent Schools Council, with more than 11,000 from Hong Kong, China and Russia.
In advance of tomorrow’s conference, the Home Office Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz said: “We need an immigration policy that is fair, open and transparent and will attract the best and brightest.”