Are higher education institutions complying with UK visas and immigration standards?

With the demographic drop in 18-year olds flowing into higher education, the pool of UK undergraduates in the past few years continuing to see a decline, and with Brexit on the horizon and the future status of EU students uncertain after 2021/22; the clear growth market for UK universities is international students.

In April 2019, the Office for Students issued a ‘financial sustainability of higher education providers in England’ report, which showed that by 2021/22 overseas student FTEs are projected to increase by 20.7 per cent resulting in an increase in income of £1.7bn (37.9 per cent) – which is good news for the sector if achieved. To align with this projected uplift,  the UK Government published a new ‘International Education Strategy: global potential, global growth’ in March 2019 which includes ambitious targets to increase the number of international students in studying in the UK to 600,000 by 2030 – there is currently circa 250,000 FTE in UK higher education according to HESA data for 2016/17.

In addition, the ONS published the quarterly migration statistics in May this year which reported ‘non-EU student immigration has recently risen, after remaining broadly stable between 2013 and 2017. Most non-EU citizens arriving in the UK to study went to university and the number of sponsored applications for universities in the year ending March 2019 was the highest level on record’ – highlighting the draw of UK universities to EU and international students. 

To maximise the opportunities universities need to remain compliant with UK visas and immigration standards (UKVI) to avoid any future reputational, financial and operational risks. 

Higher education providers continue to be under scrutiny to demonstrate compliance with UKVI standards in respect of international student recruitment. Students from outside the European Economic Area must apply for a student visa under the Tier 4 category. As a sponsor, the higher education provider has to assess each student’s ability to follow a course of study before a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) is assigned. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • checks on the student’s English language ability;
  • financial checks of their ability to pay fees; and
  • verification of existing qualifications.

Failure to meet UKVI requirements (the visa refusal rate of 10 per cent) can result in the university losing its Tier 4 sponsorship licence until it is brought below the acceptable visa refusal rate.

Reputationally for a higher education provider having their Tier 4 licence removed is damaging on a number of levels. Financially through the loss of potential and future income via fees charged at a higher rate than UK undergraduates; from the students’ experience of potential disruption which may impact National Student Survey (NSS) scores; and provider rankings to the perception of the quality of the provider.

In a competitive environment, international and UK students will, and do, vote with their feet and student retention is a number one issue for all providers - especially as more students, equals more funding. So, providers targeting international students need to not only recruit in line with UKVI’s requirements but provide strong retention in order to maintain their Tier 4 licence.

If your University is intending to grow and invest internationally you need to be aware of the potential risks associated with expansion, find out more about expanding internationally.