Friday, 7 December 2012

The latest student visa stats: what they do and don't show

Last week's immigration statistics from the Home Office were much trumpeted by a government keen to show it is being tough on immigration, stressing the headline reductions in net migration, in large measure due to a drop in international students coming to study in the UK measured variously by
  • a 26% decrease in the number of visas issued in the year to September 2012 compared to the previous year; 
  • a 10% drop in students entering the country for study in 2011 compared to 2010, 
  • and a fall of 7% in the number of students as estimated by the International Passenger Survey for the year ending March 2012 compared to the previous year.
The headline figures, however, disguise enormous sectoral differences.

While the government may claim that the HE sector is unaffected using the figure of a 1% increase in visa applications (from 154,575 to 155,821), in the context of the global demand for international study, a 1% increase is undoubtedly a cut in market share, and at best a flatlining in terms of numbers.

Yet more worrying is what is going in in other sectors.  Even independent schools - which the government has said are not a concern in immigration terms - are showing a 17% fall.  This is unsurprising given the link between choosing a UK school and intention to progress to university - a clear sign of the damage to pathways through the education sector.

The really catastrophic evidence comes in the impact on language schools and the FE sector.  Applications for Tier 4 visas for language schools have fallen 76%, from 15,930 to a mere 3,748 in the year ending September 2012.  While some students may have opted for an Extended Student Visitor Visa instead of a Tier 4 visa (often of necessity as the number of Tier 4 sponsors in the sector has fallen), this is still a worrying trend of a decline in the long-stay segment of the market, which is important not only in its own right but as a feeder for the rest of the sector.  Equally of concern is that the FE sector (including both public FE colleges and a mix of private tertiary colleges) experienced a 67% dip from 99,296 visa applications to only 32,900 in the year ending September 2012.  A number of factors are no doubt in play here: inequitable work rights for students, the loss of licences (for colleges all parts of the sector) and closure of many private colleges, leading to bad publicity and in some cases exit from the market.

These latter figures reflect a report from Study UK earlier in the year that colleges were seeing 70% falls in applications.  Even if a proportion of these institutions or students were mis-using the student route, it seems implausible that the figure was as high as two-thirds.  The impact on genuine students and genuine colleges is clear - as are the direct and indirect knock on effects of loss of current and future business.

The Home Office figures also pick up on the rising number of student visitor visas, alongside the fall in Tier 4 visas: student visitor visas have increased by 12% to 66,569 in the year to September 2012.  Not all student visitors have to apply for a visa in advance however, so we must also look at the total number of those admitted under the student visitor category, including those who were granted this on arrival, giving a total of 262,000 in 2011.

Putting two and two together, as John Vine has done in his recent Tier 4 report, it is easy to see how he concludes:
We found a potential risk of non-genuine students opting to apply for Student (Visitor) visas instead of Tier 4. Student (Visitor) visas are not subject to the same stringent rules that are applied to Tier 4. In early 2012, for the first time since the introduction of Tier 4, a greater number of Student (Visitor) visas than Tier 4 visas were issued. The Agency needs to be alert to this to ensure that this route is not exploited in the future. 
Yet inspecting the Home Office figures, the breakdown of nationalities shows little evidence of this displacement.  Of the top ten nationalities issued visitor visas in 2011, only China, Saudi Arabia, India and Nigeria overlap with the top ten countries for Tier 4 student visas, and the scale is quite different - 52,484 Tier 4 visas to Chinese nationals compared to 7,430 student visitor visas, 34,827 Tier 4 visas for Indian students compared to 3,659 student visitor visas.  In terms of student visa admissions, almost half are from the US (and though I've heard it said that Brits are one of the largest groups of illegal aliens in the US, I've never heard that the reverse was true.)  So while John Vine's assessment of the potential weakness of the student visitor route may be correct, the statistics don't yet show evidence of displacement.

If these figures give us cause for concern, it is not over potential abuse of the student route, but about the impact of Tier 4 on the education sector as a whole, including the warning signals that in a year's time even higher education could be seeing really significant falls in new student numbers unless there are significant changes soon in the government's student immigration policy.

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