Student visa cuts will harm universities, ministers told

Education leaders say universities cannot afford to lose the fees of overseas students

Ministers are putting the UK’s world-class universities at risk with their plans to cut the number of visas awarded to overseas students, higher education leaders said today.

The government is consulting over whether to cut back on visas for students from outside the European Union who come to the UK to do foundation courses, which are below the level of university degrees. About 180,000 students came to the UK to do one of these courses in 2009.

Ministers fear that some enrol with the intention of staying in the UK permanently. The government, which has a target of reducing net migration to less than 100,000 from 215,000, believes a higher standard of English should be set for overseas students wishing to study in this country.

But university leaders are warning that these proposals could threaten the survival of some institutions and create the impression that the UK is not welcoming to overseas students.

Students from outside the European Union pay far higher fees than home students – Imperial College London, for example, charges more than £20,000 a year to overseas students for some of its courses. Universities rely on international students for 9% of their income.

If the number of international students fall, they will be badly hit, at a time when ministers are stripping universities of 40% of their teaching budget. The government’s spending review cuts the higher education budget from £7.1bn to £4.2bn by 2014.

English UK, the English language teaching association, said a reduction in visas would prevent thousands of students coming to the UK. Universities recruit nearly half of their overseas students from foundation courses, the organisation said.

Toby Millns, chief executive of English UK, said international student fees subsidise home student places. “They keep courses and sometimes whole departments open… they are in some cases vital to the survival of the institutions.”

Nicola Dandrige, chief executive of Universities UK, called the proposals damaging and dangerous.

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group, which represents small, research-intensive universities, warned that ministers risked shooting themselves in the foot:

“Britain must not be seen [to be] adopting a hostile attitude towards foreign students. Reports are emerging of countries actively advising their students against [coming to] Britain … as a result of the perceived difficulties with the UK immigration system and the extremely damaging pictures of students repeatedly rioting on the streets of London.”

Damian Green, the immigration minister, said attracting talented students from abroad was vital, but the UK had to be more selective about who could come here and how long they could stay.

“People imagine foreign students to be those who come here for a few years to study at university and then go home to work. That is not always the case.

“Too many individuals applying to study at below degree level have been coming here to live and work instead. We need to stop this abuse,” Green said.

“We are working closely with the education sector and listening to their views as part of our consultation.”

The consultation ends on Monday.

Jessica Shepherd, The Guardian

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