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Much needed government support on International student visa flexibility, for Autumn 2020

by Nikki Dale -

International student applications, as of 30th June where 10% up, compared to the same time in 2019.  A sigh of relief for universities, that were of course in fear of the fallout percentage of International students for this academic year – 2020/21.

However, one of the many challenges the higher education sector faces, is a potential hold-up of visas for international students. A proposal has been presented to the government that they take urgent action for additional flexibility,  which helps overseas students on obtaining or renewing their visas. 

As The World University Rankings reported, following the UK lockdown and universities closing campuses and moving courses online, the government made a series of announcements relaxing visa requirements for international students, including temporarily allowing students to renew or change the category of their visas without having to return to their home country.

However, Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said “the priority is making sure the system is working at all, because one of the things spooking us is that the Visa Application Centres are closed”.

The Academic Technology Approval Scheme, required for those who study certain subjects at postgraduate level, is also not functioning, she added. “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.

She added that it was “really welcome” that the Home Office had allowed universities to self-assess English-language competence to get around the closure of secure English-language testing centres caused by the pandemic.

And while the government has relaxed the rules about studying online – usually banned for those on Tier 4 visas – for current holders until 31 May, that concession must be extended further, she said.

James Pitman, managing director of Study Group, agreed. As institutions are preparing to have some or all their courses online for the first term of the 2020-21 academic year, the government must be clear about how it will address the “unprecedented circumstance” that international students will find themselves in. “Uncertainty in this area will undoubtedly deter international students and do significant damage to the sector,” he said.

He added that recent flexibility on English testing was “most welcome but only covers a portion of the demand that has been building up in markets such as China”.

Universities UK recently sent a series of proposals to the government aimed at protecting universities from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which called for additional flexibilities in the visa system. The National Union of Students (NUS) told Times Higher Education that it supported the request.


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