Matthew Burgess, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, writes:
Earlier this week, the Home Office announced yet further changes to the so-called Tier 4 system, by which international students are granted visas to study in the UK.
Trailed as “a new crackdown on the abuse of student visas”, the prime minister and home secretary jointly explained that “currently, educational institutions can enjoy highly trusted sponsor status (HTS) if the Home Office rejects 20 per cent or more of the individuals they have offered places to are refused visas”.
However, the announcement then added: “but that figure will be cut to 10 per cent in November… If more than one in 10 applications are being rejected from November onwards, educational institutions could lose their right to bring in new students from overseas.”
While independent schools are not specifically mentioned, neither are they explicitly exempted – which means, for now at least, we must assume that these changes will affect our sector too.
As the government's industrial strategy for international education recently recognised, the UK's independent school sector is world renowned.
“The UK has a number of truly international educational brands ... our independent school sector has been attracting students from all over the world for decades," the government report said. In short, a British education, at a British independent school, sets a global gold standard.
Our latest annual census reveals that 645 out of our 1,257 schools hold HTS Tier 4 licences. This means that HTS independent schools constitute over 40 per cent of all sponsors registered with UK Visas and Immigration under Tier 4. Changes to the sponsorship rules therefore have a significant impact on us as a sector. Unfortunately, our sector is rarely, if ever, consulted on changes.
We have long argued that the Tier 4 system has failed properly to acknowledge the low risk posed by children attending independent day and boarding schools. Changes driven by extraneous factors – concerns about parts of the education sector or types of migrant perceived by the government to present a high immigration risk, for example – are often poorly designed and implemented for the UK's independent school sector.
The recent announcement of the reduction of the visa refusal threshold from 20 per cent to 10 per cent is a case in point. Leaving to one side the debate around whether it is legitimate to attribute applicant visa refusal to poor sponsor recruitment practices, our principal concern is the impact of a 10 per cent threshold on the vast majority of independent school sponsors which issue very few confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS) documents each year.
This is illustrated by further data from our annual census. In 2013/14, the 645 HTS independent schools within our membership recruited a total of 7,590 new pupils from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). Assuming that each new pupil required only one CAS (a conservative assumption given average refusal rates) and that no other CASs were issued by the school, this means that, on average, each Tier 4 school issued 12 CASs in 2013/14. With a refusal rate of 10 per cent leading to a loss of their highly trusted sponsor status and Tier 4 licence, this suggests that, on average, more than one single visa refusal will lead to the sponsoring school losing its licence.
This is based on averages. Looking at the actual data, the situation is just as bleak. Our census reveals there are only 10 schools, out of a total of 645, which can have double digit refusals and still keep their licence. More worryingly, there are 430 schools recruiting 10 or fewer non-EEA pupils, which risk losing their licence on the basis of a single refusal.
Losing the Tier 4 licence would have a devastating impact on independent schools recruiting internationally. The impact on existing international pupils at schools which have forfeited their licences would be equally, if not more, serious particularly if the continuity of their education is jeopardised at a critical stage.
Ministers have legal duties under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the United Kingdom. What assessment, I wonder, has been carried out on the impact of this change in the light of these duties?
UK Visas and Immigration like to refer to their “holistic approach” but, in the absence of written assurances or structural changes to Tier 4 exempting independent schools from the consequences of this latest policy change, it is highly likely that the current Home Office team will be remembered as the ministers who closed the UK's borders to boarders.