University rep speaks out against UK visa fee changes

The visa fee changes coming into effect from July in the UK are driving away international students and ruining the reputation of UK universities, said the vice-chancellor of the UK's Sheffield University and chairman of Universities UK's international strategy group, Robert Boucher.

While speaking at the UK Visas conference on 24 May, Professor Boucher said, "The UK benefits from international students in many ways: directly - culturally, academically, economically, and financially and indirectly and of no lesser significance - through trade and international relationships."

Some of these benefits are directly relevant to UK education institutions. In higher education (HE) 7% of total income for the sector in 2003-04 came from international student fees. Education and training exports were worth £10.2 bn to the UK economy in 2002-03.

There were over 210,000 non-EU international students in UK HEIs in 2003-04. There were additionally nearly 90,000 EU students in UK HEIs in 2003-04. Currently, around one in seven students in UK higher education comes from outside the UK.

In 1997-98 there were 2,800 students from China, by 2003-04, this had risen to 47,700, a 17-fold increase. The number of students from India has also grown from just under 3,000 in 1997-98, to nearly 15,000 in 2003-04, a fivefold increase. The US came in third in sending students to the UK, with over 13, 000 in 2003-04.

"Some of the activities of the Home Office and UK visas over the last 18 months - the introduction and subsequent vast increase in visa extension fees - the recently proposed increase in initial visa fees and outrageous manifesto proposal to abolish the right of appeal - have angered international students, attaches and ambassadors in London embassies and high commissions, as well as university international officers, tutors and supervisors." He said by this "unwelcoming attitude of the UK government to international students", Britain is "perceived as erecting "Stay out" signs."

He explained that universities and colleges provide benefits to the UK beyond the financial value of the service itself. "Overseas postgraduate research students contribute directly to Office of Science and Technology objectives in providing an important part, sometimes the majority, of the highly educated cadre needed to conduct leading research to take forward the development of the UK scientific and engineering knowledge base. So there is certainly a debate to be had about the extent to which government departments, as beneficiaries, should contribute to meeting some of the costs of student services."

He added that international students feel they are simply an easy target for income generation.

UK Visas' proposal to increase initial student visa fees from £36 to £85 from July 1 this year "has been greeted with disbelief and outrage by the education sector", he said.