Call for UK to prioritise student visas

The UK government is facing calls for changes in the immigration system to make the country's universities more accessible to overseas students in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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In a newly-published policy paper, the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), whose members include all the nation's universities, proposes a total of 15 changes which, it claims, would make the UK the “world’s most attractive destination” for international students.Proposals in the policy paper - ‘Delivering a World-Class International Student Experience’ - include a plan to prioritise international students’ visa applications as the UK's Visa Application Centres (VAC) around the world reopen; a review in the implementation of post-Brexit rules for students from the European Economic Area; and a delay in planned increases to the NHS Immigration Health Surcharge for international students.“UKCISA’s vision is that every international student who comes to the UK has a positive experience,” said Anne-Marie Graham, chief executive of the organisation. "While the UK education sector delivers a world class offer, there are still improvements that can, and should, be made to the current international student experience. This roadmap is the result of UKCISA’s unique position as the champion of international students and is informed by our positive partnerships with students and sector organisations."I am confident that if all of these recommendations are implemented, the UK will indisputably become the best study destination in the world.”Ms Graham said that the UK’s most immediate priorities related to visas and immigration, and said the council was "urgently" calling on the government to extend and expand existing coronavirus-related concessions "to demonstrate its commitment to ensure no international student is adversely impacted by this situation".She added: “As VACs reopen we need reassurance that there is capacity to deal with a backlog of international student applications, and prioritise international student applications, as France has done."The paper also said the government should build up a public and political consensus on the contribution to the UK made by international students.UKCISA wants the government to "communicate a clear message welcoming international students, build a better picture of current international students’ experiences, identify the development of an international student charter, and support a coherent UK alumni offer and an international graduate employability strategy"Additionally, UKCISA says the government should “leverage synergies” between educational providers’ employability efforts and government's global networks; that the state invest in a pilot for a graduate export placement scheme; and that ministers prioritise the international recognition of qualifications in government-to-government dialogue.“In times of crisis, messages from the top matter. First and foremost, we emphasise the need for clear and consistent welcome messages from government, recognising the important contribution international students make to UK intellectual life, local communities and the economy,” Ms Graham said.Last year, the government published an International Education Strategy which set goals of increasing international student numbers by 30 per cent and boosting the economic impact of the industry to £35 billion annually by 2030. In a statement, UKCISA said that the strategy represented a welcome change in approach to international education and noted that the government had put in place various coronavirus-related concessions to minimise disruption for students. “However, given the complex challenges posed by the pandemic and the UK’s departure from the EU, and the vital contribution international students make to cities and communities across the UK, there is an imperative to go further,” the statement added.

Read more news and views from David Sapsted.

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