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Battles won and lost over UK's Immigration Act

HEi-know Analysis Briefing: the UK Immigration Act


The announcement of a new immigration bill in the Queen’s speech last year coincided with figures showing that the number of international students in the UK fell for the first time on record.

The numbers from India and Pakistan, who had traditional bolstered postgraduate courses across the country, not only fell but plummeted.

The last thing vice-chancellors and international offices exploring ways to fill the gaps left by these students needed was the prospect of stricter controls and more checks on vital international recruitment.

A new immigration bill certainly seemed at odds with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills' wish to expand international student numbers by 90,000 over the next five years.

The measures in the Bill causing most concern to higher education (HE) were a requirement on private landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, a new NHS charge and moves to reduce the right of appeal making it easier for the Home Office to remove people from the UK.

Vice-chancellors and university groups argued vociferously that not only would the measures materially affect international students, they would also add to the already strong impression in many parts of the world that the UK did not welcome foreign students and  “was not open for business”.

After much lobbying from the sector, the bill that became law in May is a toned down version of the original.

“We feel that many of the points we put forward were taken on board in the passing of the bill,” said a UUK spokesman. “Discussions about the details and timeframes for implementation are taking place and we are working with the Home Office (and other departments) to be updated on the areas that affect higher education.”

Win over landlord checks

Perhaps the biggest win for the sector was on the proposals for landlord checks. Students living in private halls of residence and university owned accommodation will now be exempt. The government has also offered an exemption based on a “nomination” process, whereby a student will not be subjected to checks if they have been “nominated” to their accommodation by an HE or FE institution.

It is unclear exactly how this is intended to work, as the amendment was introduced at a very late stage, but the idea is that the HEI/FEI effectively confirms to a landlord the visa status of particular students on the basis that they have already undertaken these checks.

The government has also given reassurances that students will be able to apply for and sign up to provisional tenancy agreements with landlords before they have received their visa - on the basis that those students are outside the UK and so the bill does not apply to them at all.

“We would have preferred that this was stated on the face of the bill, but we will be pushing that this fact is included clearly in guidance given to landlords,” said UUK.

The policy will be phased and piloted through different regions in the UK with residential letting associations and homeless charities forming a consultative panel led by Lord Best.

On the new NHS charges, which will come in to force next year, the £200 a year which migrants have to pay will be reduced to £150 a year for students and their dependents.

However, there are concerns that students could be disproportionately affected, as the charge applies to all those without indefinite leave to stay. Those individuals who settle in the UK but begin as students could pay for a very long time, for instance three years as an undergraduate, then as a post graduate taught, then a PhD, then time after graduation on a work visa that counts towards the residency requirements. UUK will explore with the government alternatives such as limiting the number of years that a person has to pay in any ten year period.

Right of Appeal lost

One area where the government would not budge was the loss of appeal rights for in-country applications (and extensions).

Students will no longer have a right of appeal for wrongful refusal of a visa, or of leave to remain for work or study, over a certificate of entitlement, or for a wrongful decision to remove someone from the country as an illegal entrant or to deport them. Instead, there will be a ‘robust’ internal administrative review – a change which is causing concern across the sector.

“These internal reviews, which currently precede all appeals, have not prevented nearly half of Home Office decisions refusing visas for work, and nearly one-third of deportation decisions, being overturned on appeal,” said a spokesman for the UK Council for International Student Affairs.

It is unclear when the right of appeal will be removed, but it could be as early as October 2014. It is also unclear what will happen to appeals that have been lodged but not decided before the provisions come into force.

“We didn’t get movement on this,” said UUK. “We still think the quality of decision making is too poor to justify removal of appeal rights, and that ‘administrative review’ should be used in addition to, not instead of, the right of appeal.”

During the committee and final stages of the reading of the bill, speaker after speaker spoke of the contribution international students make to UK HE and Britain as a whole.

But given the direction of travel, and the central role that the immigration debate will play in the forthcoming General Election, it came as no surprise that a proposed amendment to remove international students from the overall immigration targets was not adopted.

For many observers, the lack of substantive opposition that the bill faced in Parliament, particularly in the House of Commons, was alarming.

Daniel Stevens, the NUS International Students’ Officer who lobbied against the bill and who has now stepped down, believes the changes will lead to international students opting for countries with more lenient regulatory regimes.

“The new requirements of the bill are unworkable, expensive and ultimately being announced and callously implemented for calculated political gain,” he said. “Most disappointing, the Government are again targeting international students…in a bid to reduce net migration from the UK.”

As if to prove the point, weeks after the bill received royal ascent, the Home Office revealed its latest crackdown on alleged abuses of the student visa system, following a BBC investigation into English language test fraud.

This article was originally published by HEi-know on 25 July 2014