Senior figures in the UK education sector are warning that indecision within the Government on changes to the Tier 4 student immigration program will harm the UK universities sector and the UK as a whole. The coalition government has delayed an eight-week consultation on planned changes to the UK student visa system.
The recent announcement of numbers for the permanent immigration cap on skilled immigration has the UK's education industry worried that a similar cap on student immigration below degree level will severely damage the UK's education sector and so the country's ability to remain globally competitive in the education sector.
There are reports that disagreements between the Home Secretary, Theresa May and business secretary Vince Cable are behind the delay. Cable has been an opponent to the UK's planned immigration cap, stating that Britain needs skilled immigration, A vice-chancellor told education news magazine Times Higher Education that there was divisions in the Cabinet over the issue. However, David Willetts, the universities and science minister said that it was just a question of waiting for a response.
Willetts had said he was having worthwhile discussions with Ms May and that, following recent disagreements with industry over migration, the government did not want to also "take on" universities, according to the vice-chancellor.
Other vice-chancellors said they feared that the government did not appreciate the effect that restrictions on visas for courses below degree level would have on universities.
"It is looking as if there may be a real risk that we make - as a country, as the UK - a big mistake on student visas, said Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex.
"Unfortunately, there seems to be a belief that if you restrict visas at the sub-degree level outside universities (in language colleges, pathway colleges), that will end up as a restriction on net migration without affecting universities too severely," he added.
"In fact, [for Essex], about half of our students who come in as overseas students are already resident in this country."
Universities are also critical of changes to Tier 1 visas and Tier 2 visas that will take effect once the cap is put in place in April of 2011. The Tier 1 (General) visa will be replaced or will become an 'exceptional talent' visa, and Tier 2 will require a degree qualification.
The 'exceptional talent' visa will be capped at 1,000 visas a year; This visa will be so difficult to obtain that Worldwide very few people will qualify anyway. Moreover, for Tier 2 visas there will be a monthly cap of certificates of sponsorship. Universities will find it ever more difficult to employ lecturers and researchers from overseas.
The UK education sector hires many non-EU academics. 2,600 new non-EU citizens worked in UK higher education institutions in 2008-09.