It was reassuring to hear Chris Skidmore, Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation talk about the importance of supporting international students studying in the UK at the recent WonkHE conference on the Secret Life of Students on Monday 25 March. In his speech he set out his 3 STEPS in the student cycle, focussing on Transition, Experience and Progression. In response, UKCISA outlines a few easy STEPS the government could take to support the Minister's ambitions.
One very simple step the government could take to aid the transition of international students to the UK is to abolish the un-necessary, unwelcoming and dysfunctional police registration process where designated nationals are required to register with the police within seven days of arriving in the UK. The Minister would win many friends in the sector if he was able to get rid of this anachronistic system.
There are also numerous aspects in the student immigration rules which prevent students with Tier 4 visas from transitioning easily through the education system in the way that the Minister would like to see. The most obvious one is that students with Tier 4 visas transitioning from Further Education Colleges and independent Higher Education institutions cannot apply to extend their stay inside the UK. An easy step to aid transition would be to permit all international students who hold the appropriate documentation to apply inside the UK. We could also talk about easier switching between institutions, easing the cap on time permitted to study at certain levels and get into a useful dialogue about simplifying the academic progress rules. Our members are ready and waiting with practical suggestions.
The Minister urged Universities to remove 'nasty surprises' about hidden costs such as bench fees or course materials. We agree that the costs students may need to cover should be transparent. UKCISA’s members are extremely concerned about the recent outsourcing of Tier 4 visa processing to a private company who are charging a raft of additional fees to students to speed up their application. Not only that, they must pay before being able to select appointment dates which many have found are not actually available before their visas expire. And this is in addition to the Home Office application fee. Institutions themselves also got a bit of a nasty surprise when they were quoted over £10,000 for the company to come and process student visa applications on campus. We could not agree more with the Minister when he says that 'under no circumstances is it acceptable to make crude profit from students'.
The Minister noted that 'not all students will want to work in London, not all students will prioritise a high-paying career' but international students keen to work in the third sector or outside London or for SMEs who tend not to have Tier 2 licences (and as Elaine Boyes from AGCAS outlined in the final session of the day – SMEs are the largest employers of graduates in the UK), are unable to take up post study employment if the starting salary does not meet the Tier 2 threshold of £20,800 or higher. One of the Minister’s (longer serving) predecessors, now Lord Willets has called for differing regional salary requirements which we agree would help. And while we absolutely welcome the new International Education Strategy which commits the government to granting international students an additional six months at the end of their student visa, students want and expect more. As Chair of UKCISA's Board and President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield Prof Koen Lamberts recently stated 'no amount of coordination and communication would have the impact of that simple policy’.
As the Minister said, 'responsibility cuts both ways' and UKCISA and its members, which include every university in the UK, are ready and willing to work together with the government, including the Home Office, to support the STEPS to ensure that international students who choose to come to the UK have the best possible experience.
Director of Policy and Services, UKCISA