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U.K. Visa Changes Mean Closer Scrutiny for Non-European Students

Angela Saini

The U.K. government's plan to introduce a points-based immigration system won't begin to affect students coming from countries outside the European Union until the next academic year, but students are already talking about it. "The new U.K. visa rules will be so strict, it's like we're not welcome into the country," complains 28-year-old Mireille Pinas from Suriname, a master's student at the University of Westminster. Tenzin Jigdal, a 26-year-old London Metropolitan University postgraduate computing student from Tibet, is pragmatic: "I'm less worried. I expected the immigration laws to tighten," he says.

Angela Saini
Master's student Mireille Pinas says "The new U.K. visa rules will be so strict, it's like we're not welcome into the country."

The British Home Office announced last week that the new rules relating to international students--referred to as Tier 4--will go into effect in March. This means that postgraduate students who plan to make an application for the next academic year, and undergraduate students for the following year, will face a different and slightly tougher process to get their visas. The new system requires students to make choices about where and what they will study earlier than they are required to do now and for the first time spells out the exact level of funds that an international student must have before he or she will be allowed into the United Kingdom.

"A sensible move"

Some 309,000 students entered the United Kingdom from non-European countries in 2006, and foreign students annually contribute £2.5 billion to the country in tuition fees. At the same time, British universities benefit from attracting the cream of academic talent, and the country builds closer ties with the rest of the world. So the government would rather not discourage non-European students from entering the country. At the same time, however, there are prudent national security reasons behind tightening border control.

Because the current student visas aren't tied to a specific university or college, "The government has no idea where very large numbers of international students are in the U.K. It doesn't even know if people who have been granted student visas have arrived," says Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Students Affairs. In a post-9/11 world with raised global security, the new regulations promise to clamp down on bogus colleges, which sometimes act as a front for immigration fraud, and ensure that only bona fide students enter the country.

"It is a sensible move and should have no adverse effect on the student," Scott adds. So long as they attend classes and complete their courses, students can look forward to a pain-free stay.

But from the perspective of the British immigration authorities, the relationship between students and their places of study will fundamentally change. Each university or college offering accredited courses will have to appear on an official register of sponsors, which the UK Border Agency will use to check against visa applications. Overseas students need to also prove they have the minimum level of funds needed to complete their course, amounting to their university fees plus £800 per month for a course of less than 12 months, or their fees plus £9600 in total for a student on a course of more than 12 months.

The new rules also tie students to one place of study and make it difficult to change after arrival. Someone with a visa to study engineering at the University of Manchester, for example, will have to apply for a new visa if he or she decides to switch to the University of Birmingham, a process that is likely to be expensive and slow. International students who want to move from graduate to postgraduate studies will also have to make a new visa application, but this is already necessary under the current law.

Experts advise non-European students to know exactly what and where they want to study before making a visa application. This may pose a dilemma for students who get offers from more than one university, but it is good news for universities, which sometimes don't know how many overseas students will turn up until the start of the academic year, because they either don't arrive in the United Kingdom at all or accept an offer from a different university. "Under the new points-based system, the element of uncertainty for universities will be removed," says Malcolm McCrae, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and a virologist at the University of Warwick, where in the past as many as 15% of non-European students have failed to show up for some courses.

Universities as policemen?

Under the U.K.'s new immigration rules, the government will look to universities to monitor students and make sure that they complete their courses. This does not mean merely taking attendance at each class or seminar; universities are also required to alert the UK Border Agency if a student fails to attend 10 "expected interactions," such as a class or lecture. Although the Home Office is still deciding exactly what will constitute an "interaction," students should be aware that taking too much time off could leave them at risk of losing their visas.

Colleges and universities will also keep digital copies of each student's passport and visa. "For the university, it means that it will have to act in some way as a policeman. It means more bureaucracy, more staff, and more expense," warns Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.

Angela Saini
Sharon Bolton, Imperial College London

Sharon Bolton from Imperial College London's International Office sees some positives to the new laws. "The new rules will make us pay more attention to our international students and what they're doing," Bolton says. "It's going to be a rocky ride to begin with, but in the long run it will be a good thing for the college."

An extra year for graduate workers

The new immigration rules offer advantages for graduate job seekers. In July, the government introduced a post-study work (PSW) scheme under Tier 1 of the immigration reforms. PSW allows graduates from any U.K. course to stay in the United Kingdom for 2 years without a work permit or a job offer, whereas the previous scheme allowed graduates only 1 year.

"Before this scheme, employers would hesitate to give foreign graduates a job because it takes time and money to train you up. They didn't want to see you leave the job after only a year. Now companies may be more willing to hire us," says Jigdal.

There are no prescribed limits on how many graduates will be granted visas through the PSW scheme. According to a Home Office spokesperson, "It's not about more or less, it's about getting the right people. Letting the brightest and best students apply for a 2-year visa is good for British business."

On the downside, the paperwork that students must fill out has more than doubled. "The application form for the PSW scheme is 40 pages long," Bolton says. "Sadly, we don't have time to go through all 40 pages with every student who wants to make an application, but we have produced guidance and offer workshops on how to complete the form."

To qualify for the PSW scheme, a postgraduate needs to accrue 95 points, which are earned on the basis of whether he or she has completed a degree in the United Kingdom, has good English language skills, and has sufficient funds. Someone applying from within the United Kingdom must have at least £800 in a bank account, whereas U.K. graduates who have returned to their home countries and are applying to the scheme need at least £2800 in financial reserves.

Although the PSW scheme is an extra attraction for international students once their studies are complete, McCrae fears that the government's radical immigration reforms may put people off applying to study in the United Kingdom at all. "Transnational education has become a very big business," he says, "Some countries are seemingly lowering their visa barriers, but if the U.K. is seen to be raising its own barriers, some students may choose to go to the U.S. or Australia instead, however simple the visa process may still be. It's a question of perception."

Photos: Angela Saini

Angela Saini is a journalist in London.

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