Visa concerns 'spooking' UK universities

Universities are telling the UK government that action needs to be taken urgently to prevent the coronavirus pandemic posing practical problems for overseas students wishing to study in Britain.

There is already uncertainty about how many foreign students will enrol in the 2020-21 academic year because of Covid-19 movement restrictions and because of continuing fears over the spread of the virus.A fall in the number of overseas students - who often pay up to twice the £9,250 tuition fees charged to British students - would not only have serious financial implications for universities but could seriously affect the talent pipeline which so many UK businesses rely on.While the government has made a series of announcements relaxing visa requirements for international students, including temporarily allowing them to renew or change their visas without having to return to their home country, the closure of Visa Application Centres because of the pandemic is causing concern.Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, told Times Higher Education (THE) that “the priority is making sure the system is working at all" and that the closure of the visa centres was "spooking" the higher education sector.
Ms Stern said that the Academic Technology Approval Scheme, which approves study in certain subjects at postgraduate level, was also not functioning.“If we don’t get those systems up and running, it will be hard to send the message to international students, many of whom do still want to study here, that they can get the visas they need,” she said.James Pitman, managing director of global company Study Group, which prepares international students for university degree programmes, said that while institutions were preparing to have some or all their courses online for the first term of the upcoming academic year, the government must be clear about how it will address the “unprecedented circumstance” that international students find themselves in.“Uncertainty in this area will undoubtedly deter international students and do significant damage to the sector,” he told the THE, adding that while recent flexibility on English testing, allowing universities to conduct their own assessments, was welcome, it "only covers a portion of the demand that has been building up in markets such as China”.Eva Crossan Jory, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, said the predicted decline in international students would have “a hugely detrimental effect on the experience for all students on campus, as well as the knock-on effects on institutional financial sustainability”.Britain is the second-most popular university destination for foreign students after the United States. In 2018-2019, one in five pupils in the country came from overseas. Our of a total of 485,645 overseas students, nearly 343,000 came from outside the European Union, with 120,385 coming from China.On Monday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that £2.6 billion in forecast tuition fee payments would be brought forward to help address cash flow concerns, along with £100 million in government funding to help protect research activities.The changes will mean higher education providers in England will be able to recruit full-time undergraduate UK and EU students for 2020-21 based on their forecasts for the next academic year, plus an additional five per cent.Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of leading universities, said: "Universities will always do their part helping the NHS and our communities in the fight against coronavirus while taking immediate steps to make savings and deliver the best value for every pound we spend."However, the effects of this virus will be long term and it is vital the country is in a strong position to bounce back.
"The ideas, skills and innovation of our universities, students and staff will be at the heart of this and we will continue to work with the government to protect those qualities and unleash Britain's potential."

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