Government Vows Tougher Rules on Overseas Student Recruitment

Universities could lose their licence to sponsor overseas students if they admit those who then fail to pass visa checks, enrol, or complete their courses.
Government Vows Tougher Rules on Overseas Student Recruitment
University graduates in a file photo on Oct. 12, 2011. (Chris Radburn/PA)
Victoria Friedman

The government has proposed tougher rules on international student recruitment, including cracking down on “rogue recruitment agents,” in a bid to tackle visa abuse.

Universities would be mandated to sign up to a “stringent framework for agents” and could lose their licence to sponsor overseas students if they fail to comply with the measures, the Home Office and Department for Education announced on Thursday.

Higher education institutions could lose their ability to sponsor overseas students if they “accept international students who then fail to pass our visa checks, enrol or complete their courses,” the departments said.

The proposals would ensure that the UK’s university sector “is used for education, not as a gateway to immigration, with options to go further remaining under consideration,” the government said.

It added, “This will deliver on the commitment to lower overall levels of migration while maintaining the UK’s leading status as a world-class destination for higher education and attracting the brightest and best international students.”

Financial and Language Requirements

Students will also be subject to tighter rules, including the raising of financial maintenance requirements so that “international students will have to prove their financial self-sufficiency.”

The government said that it was already reviewing English language assessments, saying it aimed to standardise independent assessments, “ensuring all international students are equipped with the skills to understand their course materials – or they shouldn’t expect a place at a UK university.”

Restrictions would also be placed on distance or online learning, meaning all overseas students “predominantly undertaking face-to-face courses.”

The proposals came the same day that data related to immigration were released, showing a 10 percent fall in net migration and a 28 percent drop in illegal immigration. The government has vowed to bring down immigration, both legal and illegal.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said that “we must go further” to ensure immigration routes “aren’t abused.”

“That’s why we are cracking down on rogue international agents and, building on work across government, to ensure international students are coming here to study, not work,” Mr. Cleverly said.

Graduate Route Kept ‘Under Review’

In March, Mr. Cleverly ordered the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to conduct a review of the Graduate route, which allows overseas students to stay in the UK for two to three years after graduation unsponsored, over concerns that some demand for study visas was being driven “more by a desire for immigration rather than education.”
The MAC responded on May 14 that the Graduate visa route is “not undermining” the quality and integrity of the British university system and there is no evidence of “widespread abuse” for immigration purposes.

However, the immigration advisers raised concerns that some agents recruiting prospective students overseas were “mis-selling” British universities.

The MAC said in its letter to the home secretary, “We have reason to believe that some agents and subagents recruiting international students are mis-selling UK higher education and exploiting students in the process.”
Home Secretary James Cleverly arriving in Downing Street for a Cabinet meeting in London on May 14, 2024. (Lucy North/PA)
Home Secretary James Cleverly arriving in Downing Street for a Cabinet meeting in London on May 14, 2024. (Lucy North/PA)

The Home Office said on Thursday that the Graduate route would be maintained but “kept under review,” adding that the government “remains concerned that the route is not attracting the highest earners who contribute to our economy.”

Chief Executive of the Russell Group Tim Bradshaw welcomed the news that the Graduate route remains open.

Mr. Bradshaw continued in a statement that he supports the government’s proposed regulations, “such as additional regulations on agents,” which he said “will help to protect the quality and integrity of the UK’s education offer and we are ready to work with Government and colleagues across the sector to implement these.”

“Stability is now needed in student migration policy to enable universities to plan for a long-term, sustainable future and protect quality and choice for all students,” he added.

Universities Must Revise Business Models

Last week, the Office for Students (OfS) published a report advising universities to review their funding and business models to avoid closure. The independent regulator for higher education estimated that by academic year 2026–2027, nearly two-thirds of institutions will be in deficit.

The OfS also warned against universities’ reliance on overseas fees for funding, noting there is a particular vulnerability where student recruitment is predominantly from a single country.

On Tuesday, government minister Baroness Barran said universities would need to revise their business models “to ensure that they are financially sustainable” and adapt to uncertainties and financial risks.

The peer made the remarks in response to a question on the sustainability of higher education institutions, as a growing number face financial pressures.

Baroness Barran said that universities are independent from government and it was up to them to manage their finances. However, she stated that government would “have a role to play in making sure that student interests are protected in the case of a university failing.”

Victoria Friedman is a UK-based reporter covering a wide range of national stories.