The tightening of the rules for student visas has had a dramatic impact on colleges, with the number of applications from overseas dropping markedly as a result of the government’s immigration crackdown.
New analysis of Home Office data by TES reveals that the number of students from outside the European Union applying for visas to study at colleges in the UK has halved in just three years.
Colleges have also warned that new rules which ban FE students from outside the EU from taking on part-time work when they study on courses lasting more than six months could further damage the international recruitment market, estimated to be worth £100 million a year to the sector.
The number of Tier 4 applications (required for non-EU students for courses lasting six months or more) for study at colleges between July 2014 and June 2015 was 17,172 – the third consecutive annual decrease since 2011-12, when 35,323 applications were made in the same period (see box, right).
The most recent drop for the FE sector comes as the number of visa applications from those seeking university places has increased by 17 per cent since 2010.
The latest quarterly figures published by the Home Office also reveal that just 1,393 applications were submitted to study at colleges between April and June – down by 45 per cent on the same period the previous year, and barely a fifth of the 6,504 applications submitted in this period in 2012.
‘Hard for students’
In 2014, the government, with “bogus colleges” in its sights, introduced stricter rules on student visas to combat abuse of the system. But the latest figures suggest that genuine FE colleges have also fallen foul of the crackdown. Of those which had Tier 4 sponsor status in 2013, 13 are no longer listed on the Home Office’s current register of sponsors, meaning they cannot enrol non-EU learners on longer programmes of study.
John Mountford, international director at the Association of Colleges, said the new rules had made it “hard for genuine students to come to study at an FE college on a Tier 4 visa”.
With the adult skills budget having already suffered successive cuts earlier this year, and further reductions in FE spending anticipated in the spending review later this month, Mr Mountford said the strict visa regime could deny colleges an additional source of income.
Westminster Kingsway College currently has about 60 international students on its books (see panel, right). Principal Andy Wilson told TES that if the college’s Tier 4 status were to be revoked, it would lose about £300,000 a year in revenue. Mr Wilson said the tough new rules meant that in cases where more than 10 per cent of prospective applicants failed initial assessments offered by agencies working on colleges’ behalf, institutions could have their permission to offer Tier 4 visas withdrawn. The scrapping of a rule which previously allowed non-EU students to work for up to 10 hours a week alongside their studies could also be a deterrent, he added.
“Anybody who was planning to do some part-time work to support themselves while they were on a programme is no longer able to do that in FE,” Mr Wilson said.
NUS international students’ officer Mostafa Rajaai said it was “no surprise” that student numbers in FE had deteriorated, and added that the introduction of “credibility interviews” for applicants by Home Office officials had also deterred potential students.
“The scrapping of the right to work for FE international students and the reduced time limit to study an FE course has tarnished whatever reputation British colleges had abroad,” he said. “If the Home Office doesn’t reverse these damaging and unacceptable policies, we will see them affecting UK colleges even more than they already have.”
A spokesman for the Home Office said it had “cracked down on abuse in our immigration system”, and that the latest figures demonstrated that “this strategy is working”.
“We have struck off over 900 bogus colleges and are making sure people are coming here for the right reasons and not overstaying their visas,” he added. “This government will pursue further reforms to tackle abuse while continuing to attract the brightest and the best to our world-class universities.”
‘We’ve copied cordon bleu’
Attracting learners from overseas has proved to be a fruitful exercise for Westminster Kingsway College in London.
As well as some 40 students from outside the European Union who are enrolled on longer programmes such as A-levels, BTEC nationals and foundation degrees, it has about 20 learners taking 24-week specialist chef and patisserie courses, for which it charges £12,500.
The short length of these courses means that learners do not need to apply for Tier 4 visas. “The model is like cordon bleu catering schools,” explains principal Andy Wilson, pictured. “We’ve tried to replicate their successful business model and it’s highly profitable.”
The college also provides short English language courses tailored towards vocational specialisms, and has worked with governments in Vietnam, Malaysia and South Korea.
But losing the ability to attract students with Tier 4 visas for longer courses is a problem for many institutions, Mr Wilson believes.
“We’ve only ever had small numbers on Tier 4; we’ve maintained those numbers and built them slightly this year,” he says. “We are as risk-averse as possible in our recruitment practices.”
Applicants for Tier 4 visas for study at further education, tertiary or other colleges:
Calculated using figures running from July to the following June (source: Home Office)