In the first of a new series exploring the radical changes the British higher education system is undergoing, I look at how new student visa restrictions are affecting international students.
Last year Theresa May announced that 260,000 fewer student visas will be given out over the next five years, through harsher restrictions on fake colleges and bogus students. Whilst it is clear that preventing fake students from illegally gaining visas is a positive thing, I believe the problem has been hugely overblown, and the solution poorly managed and badly miscommunicated.
The basic problem here is that headline grabbing statistics have been used to the advantage of the government in order to impress British voters, whilst the very same figures have had the exact opposite impact on prospective international students. The headline figure of 260,000 fewer visas sounds like a high number and makes the government appear to be taking action. However, to prospective students abroad, the figure inevitably makes Britain appear less welcoming.
What's more, critics say that these figures have very little grounding in fact. The government claim they will only be cutting bogus students, and yet the very fact that they are in the UK illegally means there is no way of knowing exactly how many of them there are (and indeed, the number has already dropped significantly from the initial claim of a 400,000 reduction).
Unfortunately, this is indicative of the dreadful miscommunication of the policy changes. Many experts believe that the changes to the visa system will not actually hinder genuine students from gaining a visa to study in the UK much at all. ". Yet, despite this, there is the growing sense amongst 'legitimate' prospective students that obtaining a study visa to Britain is now a near impossibility.
Indeed, amongst the hundreds of international students I come in to contact with each year, visas are by far their biggest worry, and almost all of them still believe there to be a student visa cap (despite this idea being thrown out at a very early stage of negotiations last year). The communication has been so poor, that the relatively minor changes in policy have done major damage to the reputation of Britain's higher education system.
A further problem, is that the government appear to have forced through this legislation for the wrong reasons. It is no secret that the new directives are to help them achieve their promised cuts to immigration numbers. With this, there is the strong suspicion that international students are being made scapegoats. The government promised unrealistic cuts on immigration, and instead of tackling the harder entry points it was far easier to control the number of 'students' slipping through the visa system.
Ultimately however, the real problem is that overseas students coming to study in Britain are counted in immigration figures, which is clearly nonsensical. A typical student coming to the country to study, will bring the UK £10,000 in fees and at least a further £15,000 in living expenses each year for three years, before returning to their own country. That they are lumped in with all other 'immigrants' not only distorts the numbers, but leads to knee jerk visa changes in an effort to gain votes. This is especially important in the current climate, where immigration is such a hot topic on the political agenda. It drags international students into a debate they really are not part of, giving them a bad reputation in the process.
Overall, the wrong classification of students as immigrants, coupled with the miscommunication of new policies and an apparent disregard for the reputation of British higher education, will inevitably begin to deter international students from the UK. Though very little has actually changed in terms of the student visa application process, the damage that has been done to the international reputation of Britain's higher education system is certainly noticeable.
NB: This post focusses only on the changes to the Tier 4 student visa system. A detailed look at the changes to Post-Study Work visas will come in a later post in this series.
Follow Andy Burrows on Twitter: www.twitter.com/foreignstudents