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The great international student scandal

Some universities are not selling an education, but a visa

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

International students are big business for British universities. Analysis by Times Higher Education from 2020 to 2021 shows that tuition fees from non-European Union international students were worth about £7 billion to universities, roughly 17 per cent of their total income — up from 13 per cent in 2016-17. This financial reliance on overseas tuition fees has allowed the market for international student recruiters to flourish. But there are some warning tremors suggesting that all may not be well. 

Study Group, a leading provider of international education, recently announced in a private communication to its partners that it plans to halt recruitment of students from Bangladesh. University partners had apparently raised concerns about Bangladeshi students not enrolling in courses. 

This a swift about-turn. As recently as 13 June last year, the same company issued a press release entitled “Study Group helps Bangladeshi students seeking an international education”. The organisation was touting a fair it had held in Dhaka, connecting Bangladeshi students with representatives from Western universities. More international students enrolling is good for business. But it is not as simple as that.

Study Group isn’t alone. Another recruiter by the name of Hassle Free Education streamed a video last month claiming that seven British universities have stopped accepting students from the Sylhet region — the north-eastern region of Bangladesh. 

The company, like Study Group, is a British Council and ICEF accredited agency for recruiting international students. The tags under the YouTube video in which Hassle Free Education discussed the ban are revealing of another aspect of the recruitment industry that is rarely openly acknowledged: “UK study visa 2022; UK immigration updates 2022; UK visa; UK student visa; UK travel update; UK immigration news; UK immigration news today; UK immigration news latest …” 

Indian media is reporting on the increasing use of scams, with prospective migrants finding loopholes in the British visa system to fraudulently enter the country. Take the example of agents enticing foreign students with thousands of pounds in loans in order to facilitate tuition fee proof, with the loan subsequently refunded after the amount has appeared on the client’s bank statement. 

A spokesperson for Universities UK, the body that represents British universities, assured me that, “it is not in universities interests to recruit students who do not complete their courses. As such, they work closely with the Home Office, who have multiple requirements and checks in place as part of the application process for a student visa.” 

However, a Home Office civil servant I spoke to commented on the “chaos” within the department, which is facing pressure from the government to deal with the asylum backlog. The vetting of international students is “far from a priority” — reason, perhaps, for the recruitment sector to feel the need to take regulation into its own hands. 

This phenomenon of “missing students” isn’t new: back in 2014, the Daily Mail estimated that some 100,000 foreign students were “going missing” every year, with the majority being from the Indian subcontinent. While the illegal aspect was overblown (the gap in recorded entries and exits didn’t account for those who obtained legal leave to remain) Theresa May, as Home Secretary, was concerned at the increasing use of Britain’s student visa system as a backchannel for economic migrants. 

Britain isn’t the only nation experiencing an influx of students from the Indian subcontinent. A Canadian university is limiting admissions to its shorter (and cheaper) two-year baccalaureate programme because of massive interest from international students — 85 per cent of whom are Indian. The desire for cheap education is understandable, given the increasing popularity of Indian-language YouTube tutorials teaching international students how to get free food from Canadian food banks. 

Nevertheless, why are so many non-EU overseas students choosing British universities? And why are they seemingly uninterested in then turning up to their courses? 

… the problem lies at the feet of Boris Johnson

Like so many other immigration problems, the current Conservative government is having to reckon with, the problem lies at the feet of Boris Johnson. Egged on by his former Universities Minister brother, Jo Johnson, Boris reversed the May-era requirement that international students would have to leave the country if they couldn’t find work in four months, expanding the window to two years. 

Back in 2012 when he was mayor of London, Johnson spoke out against the Home Secretary, Theresa May’s clampdown on fake colleges that admitted “students” who couldn’t speak English, in a poorly-concealed visa-for-cash scheme. 

Visiting Amity University near Delhi, Johnson said: “it’s crazy that we should be losing India’s top talent and global leaders of the future to Australia and the United States,” and called on the government to make sure its drive to reduce immigration numbers wouldn’t “damage” the higher education sector. 

The shutdown of fake private colleges was certainly damaging to the UK higher education sector, debasing education and enriching a small number of individuals profiting from economic migrants. How ironic, then, that the poorly-disguised visa backchannel would move from bogus colleges to poorly-performing universities who are finding it increasingly difficult to convince British students that their degree certificates are worth the paper they’re written on. 

The war within the Conservative party regarding international students continues today. The current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has spoken out against the visa fraud from students from the Indian subcontinent, who are more likely to overstay their visa. But the former Education Secretary, Justine Greening, attacked Rishi Sunak’s unacted proposals to limit the number of overseas students in an open letter, stating that the move would have a “severe negative impact” on the higher education sector. 

The vice-chancellors who signed Greening’s letter are predictable. Signatories include Cara Aitchison, VC of Cardiff Metropolitan University (ranked 72nd out of 130 UK universities), Martin Jones of Staffordshire University (ranked 102nd), Anne-Marie Kilday of Northampton (98th), and Karen Bryan of York St John University (103rd). 

The postgraduate market is growing at an astonishing rate

The postgraduate market is growing at an astonishing rate, with 246,530 non-EU postgraduates being recorded as studying as of 2021, up from 197,155 in 2016. Successful applications from students resident in the Indian subcontinent have grown even faster, from around 18,000 in 2016 to 84,000 in 2021. That lower-ranking, cash-poor universities have been able to attract this large postgraduate community despite lacking stand-out research facilities and not being located in the more attractive cities is a sign of their reliance on non-EU international students for cash. 

At the University of Middlesex (ranked 112th in the league tables), 23 per cent of students are international, with nearly 70 per cent also being classified as mature. The university’s website proudly states that it is “among the world’s most international universities” with more than “145 nationalities represented on campus”. It’s among the cheapest places to get a master’s degree, costing as little as £8,000. The University set up two South Asian regional offices for the express purpose of attracting more students from the Indian subcontinent. 

International undergrads can typically expect to pay around £22,000 annually. But lower-ranking universities are often significantly cheaper. Chester University and the University of West London, led by vice-chancellors who signed Greening’s letter, are both advertised as having some of the cheapest fees for international postgraduate students in Britain.

Of course, many foreign students are granted visas under legitimate circumstances. While University College London takes the largest number of non-EU international students (37 per cent, as of 2020), the group’s desirable location, high proportion of undergraduates and stringent entry procedures indicate that this population is of no concern for policymakers: UCL is simply a desirable place to study for top students around the world. We should be concerned, however, at the booming demand for postgraduate courses at third-rate universities that seem to be deliberately advertising their “value for money” to non-EU students. 

These are former polytechnics offering poor value for money for British undergrads, who rely on foreign cash to prop up their increasingly-hard-to-sustain business model. 

Around 98 per cent of Indian students applying to turn their study visa into a work visa will have their request granted. It is not a bad investment to bypass the work visa application by entering as a student and benefitting from a two-year work visa that your course allows you. 

The failure to adequately tackle the problem of poor funding models has left British universities far more vulnerable to regulation than they were during the May-era restrictions on international students. 

Indeed, the earlier focus on exposing abuse in the private college sector, while justified, may have distracted from the broader threat that former polytechnics that after 1992 became universities pose to the stability of the sector. 

Back in 2012, a cross-party group of MPs — including the future prime minister, Boris Johnson — lobbied to exclude international students from migration statistics. Today, the same politicians who helped roll back commonsense reforms continue their attempt to mislead the public about the scale of inward movement in the name of higher education. 

We should not be fooled by politicians like Johnson who claim that international students are somehow exempt from the country-wide mandate on reduced immigration: post-1992 universities aren’t selling an education, they’re selling a residence permit. 

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