International students contribute significant economic benefit to the UK and provide an important income stream for UK education institutions. There is tension though between the twin goals of ensuring a flow of high quality students into the UK and ensuring and maintaining public confidence in the immigration system. The Home Office, through the UK Border Agency (the Agency), introduced Tier 4 of the Points Based System for student immigration in March 2009 to control the entry of students from outside the European Economic Area who come to the UK to study. Under Tier 4, students have to be sponsored by an educational institution (sponsor) licensed by the Agency and responsibility for testing whether applicants are likely to comply with their visa conditions has been transferred from the Agency to the sponsor.
The Agency implemented the new system before proper controls were in place. It removed the controls it relied on under the old system; primarily, intentions testing and spot check interviews by entry clearance officers, before it had replaced them with new checks and controls. The Agency did not make their secure electronic system, which demonstrated that a student had been sponsored by a licensed sponsor, mandatory until February 2010. In the meantime, the Agency had to rely on letters from sponsors, which were easily forged. The Agency had also only visited 30% of the education institutions it had licensed as sponsors by March 2009 when it launched Tier 4. The controls gap enabled a surge in student visas and, in 2009 an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 additional migrants came to the UK to work rather than study.
After a poorly planned and ill-thought out implementation of Tier 4 in 2009, the Agency has had to spend the subsequent three years amending rules and procedures in an effort to reduce abuse. This constant change has made it very difficult and costly for students and education institutions to keep up to date with the increasingly complex set of rules and guidance that has emerged. The supporting advice and guidance offered by the Agency has not been good enough. Furthermore, the Agency has not introduced ways to ease the burden on those students and sponsors that can safely be considered low risk, potentially damaging the benefits to the UK education sector.
The Agency has not taken sufficient action to deal with migrants abusing the student route. The Agency took the decision to focus on controls over entry to the UK. It also decided to prioritise removing individuals proven to be 'high harm', for example foreign national prisoners. However, it should not be ignoring such large numbers of people living and working in the UK illegally. Its approach also failed to capitalise on the benefit of high profile removals as a disincentive to abuse of the route. The Agency has only belatedly been removing the visas from those it knew were not studying. The Agency has not been following up on those whose visas it knew had expired.
The Government expected that clamping down on abuse of student visas would play a part in reducing net migration. However, the measurement of net migration is still based on inaccurate International Passenger Survey data. The e-Borders system for counting all migrants in and out of the UK will not be in place fully until 2015 at the earliest. We note that currently net migration figures include students, who generally stay in the UK for less than 5 years. We suggest that it would be more informative to also report net migration statistics excluding students, as a number of other comparable countries do.
On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Home Office and the UK Border Agency on the implementation and management of the student route of the Points Based System for immigration.