New rules seriously affecting international students and language colleges have been pushed through parliament in defiance of proper procedures.
In April 2010, new restrictions on international students and their families were brought into force. Under the new rules, non-degree students’ permitted working hours are halved, from twenty per week to ten, and their dependants, are for the first time, not allowed to work at all (unless they qualify in their own right). Students on short courses (six months or less) can no longer bring family members with them and must come alone. At the same time, a change in policy guidance means that non-degree students must have English to a standard approaching GCSE level, and students can no longer study basic English.
The changes will make it impossible for some students to continue their studies. Single parents cannot leave children alone in their home countries to come for short courses; many students will no longer be able to earn enough to keep themselves and partners will no longer be able to support them. There will also be an immediate impact on English language schools, many of which may face closure. It seems obvious that the greatest thought, and the fairest possible consultation procedures, are required before implementing changes with such potentially discriminatory impact and such widespread adverse effects. But a report by a little-known parliamentary committee which scrutinises statutory instruments, debated in the House of Lords, has revealed how the government rode roughshod over parliamentary procedures in pushing the changes through.
The Home Office document Simplifying Immigration Law published in November 2009, stated that, in line with the government’s code of practice on consultation, a twelve-week consultation period is provided for proposed rule changes, so that those potentially affected can raise objections. But despite the highly controversial nature of the new rules, Lord Avebury reported, in a House of Lords debate, that organisations were given at most ten days to respond to a so-called consultation exercise. Universities UK was given just twenty-four hours, and the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) was not sent the questions to be consulted on until three days after the deadline.
Despite this, seventeen organisations from the education sector beat the deadline to submit written evidence to the review and over 300 individuals and education providers made representations. But the UK Border Agency (UKBA) refused to publish the representations, or to reveal their contents publicly. Equality Impact Assessments (EIA) which should have been published when the measure was put before parliament, were not carried out until after the rules came into force – and were published on parliament’s last day before dissolution. The EIA contradicted itself, as Lord Avebury pointed out, in one place accepting that ‘there may be negative effects on equality’, but elsewhere denying any such impact.
The changes are the latest in a massive shake-up of rules for the entry of international students, designed to shut down ‘bogus’ colleges and to stop economic migrants entering the UK as students. The points-based system (PBS) for students introduced in March 2009 requires education providers to obtain sponsor licenses, and to undertake intensive monitoring, recording and reporting obligations, in order to enrol non-EEA students, effectively transferring the burden of immigration control to education providers. According to Lord Avebury, a confidential document circulated to colleges requires them to check students’ passports to ascertain that they have not before been refused leave to enter, as well as checking their academic qualifications and ability to follow the course, before issuing them with a ‘confirmation of acceptance of studies’. Severe penalties are imposed if they fail to carry out enough of the twenty-one pages of tests or if more than a small proportion of those granted certificates of approval go absent or fail to complete the course.
As a result of the PBS, 2,200 colleges formerly on the register of education providers either did not apply or were not accepted for the new register of sponsors, and since the introduction of the PBS another ninety colleges have been suspended from the register of licensed sponsors for unspecified non-compliance. The suspended colleges are mounting a legal challenge to their suspension, arguing that to suspend before investigation is unfair both on them and on their students. There is no right of appeal against suspension.
In another hasty rule change brought in in response to a ‘bogus students’ panic, all applications for student visas from south China, north India, Bangladesh and Nepal were summarily rejected from 1 February 2010, in response to an apparent increase in applications in these areas.
To add insult to injury, students have seen fees for visa extensions go through the roof – they now have to find £357 for a postal application to renew a student visa, and £80 for each dependant, and to renew in person at a public enquiry office costs £628, and £107 for each dependant, so a student with a partner and two children who has to renew in person will have to find nearly £1,000. Meanwhile, education providers, which did not in the past have to pay UKBA for the privilege of enrolling international students, are now charged up to £1,000 for a sponsor licence.
During the House of Lords debate, Baroness Hamwee described as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ the UKBA’s new requirement for ‘people who wish to come to learn the language already to be competent in it’, while Lord Avebury pointed to the fact that there had been six revisions of the PBS for students in the year since it was introduced. Peers called for a thorough and careful review of the whole scheme. In the process, UKBA needs to stop treating international students as suspects and cash-cows.
Download a copy of the House of Lords 11th Report of Session 2009-10: ‘Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee – Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules’ here (pdf file, 276kb)
Read the Hansard House of Lords Debates, Vol 718, No 66, 6 April 2010, col 1410 ff here
Download a copy of the Home Office document Simplifying Immigration Law here (pdf file, 120kb)