A great tier 4 student visa mess to be avoided

EEA Students on four year programmes will have to switch to Tier 4 visas when their temporary leave to remain ends. That appears to be the DfE’s conclusion, and what a mess that could be.

As we move towards some form of exit from the European Union, the inevitability that students from the European Economic Area (EAA) will move to being both outside the current Home/EU fee system but also require sponsorship through the visa system if not otherwise eligible to remain in the UK has taken shape.

There’s still a lot unknown, and probably unknowable, about the form of the arrangements after we have left the EU. The mitigating factor is that there’s a temporary right to remain.

While this scheme will be fine for students completing a three year course, there’s been a concern about longer courses. There are plenty of longer courses in England and Wales; integrated masters courses, sandwich courses, foreign language courses etc, but all Scottish undergraduate education is based on a four year course. So this was a key issue to raise at Education questions in the House of Commons on 24 June 2019:

This is a key concern. Some of those commenting on the change for EU students after Brexit have concentrated on the shift from a fee at £9250 in England to one around £14000 as being a marginal concern. This is to seriously understate the change. It’s a fundamental change in approach, but a key concern if it falls within a course.

Changing from Home/EU to International Student

EU students, even those who have not been resident in the UK, are treated similarly to UK students for tuition fees. They receive a tuition fee loan to cover the fee (£9250 in England) so the upfront fee is £0. The Scottish system is also £0 upfront (but without the loan). There is a considerable range of international student fees, and these include some particularly considerable sums when looking at the full-cost of a laboratory or clinical course. The swing is therefore from finding £0 upfront to finding £14,000, £20,000 or more (and showing the UKVI you have it).

Remember that an international student needs to prove that they can support themselves. UKVI provide guidance; a student needs to show they have at least £1015 per month (more in London) available to them. Although students can work to provide additional income this is constrained: no self-employed musicians.

However you frame it, the requirements for a student being sponsored under Tier 4 are more onerous than a student here from the EU. Application can be tricky, requiring a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) and a range of information. Then there are the additional costs of obtaining a visa: currently an application fee of £348 and an immigration health surcharge of £150. Then there are the ongoing monitoring requirements.

Transitional transitional arrangements

Obviously there has to be a cut-off point at some stage. Government is clear that EU temporary leave to remain can’t become a permanent leave to remain, but having this point inside students’ degrees is going to be problematic. DfE need to work through examples that include longer courses. It may be highly problematic that students from the EAA are going to have a more complex, less well-funded scheme once transition is complete, but consider how that will work for students part way through their courses. A key thing that the Devolved Governments could do is to extend the financial arrangements to those students until the end of their courses.

Law enforcement and approving the use of university title

The ‘European University of Business Ltd’ seems to be another clear example of why we’ve needed the Office for Students. It was reported that this mishap had happened:

“There is no record of this formal clearance ever being given to any institution to use the specific name ‘European University of Business’. We work closely with Companies House and Prospects to prevent misuse of the term ‘university’.”
A Companies House spokesman said: “I can confirm that Companies House accepted the word university in this name in error. We are investigating this matter and will contact the company.”

John Morgan, Business university title approved ‘in error’ THE 3 June 2019

It looks as if Companies House didn’t follow the process; EUOB (the name of the company previously) submitted a form (NM06) which is supposed to elicit advice from a government department about the use of a sensitive word in a company name, in this case ‘university’. It’s curious that EUOB did this, as it should have been clear there was no way that the DfE should have supported them, but Companies House proceeded to issue the name change.

The Companies House route relied on the DfE confirming whether it objects or not to the use of ‘university’ in a company title. Normally it would be expected to have been advised by the QAA that the criteria had been met, which for a ‘university’ included the acquisition of taught degree awarding powers. DfE have also allowed the use of title when qualified with another word that isn’t ‘college’, if a provider was franchising courses. The good news, as I’ve noted before, is that this process has now passed to the OfS.

Andy Youell had raised this and a number of us were surprised that this should have been allowed. I submitted a FOI request for a list of the organisations that DfE had provided non-objection letters for (and also those that they had refused to do so). I have a copy of a list of non-objections that DfE have previously supplied through FOI. This time I was refused:

The Department holds the information you requested, but it is being withheld because the following exemption applies to this information:

Section 31 – Law Enforcement.

Section 31 is concerned with protecting a wide range of law enforcement interests and its application turns on whether disclosure would be likely to prejudice those interests.

Section 31 is a qualified exemption and therefore a public interest test has been carried out. In doing so the following factors have been taken into consideration:

There is a public interest in transparency and accountability, to promote public understanding and to safeguard democratic processes. There is a public interest in good decision-making by public bodies, in upholding standards of integrity and ensuring justice and fair treatment for all, in securing the best use of public resources.

However, releasing this information could prejudice any investigations into organisations who have gone on to use the sensitive word University in a company or trading name.

DFE 2019 Letters of non-objection in a company name

We are in a transitional phase. OfS is now responsible for advising on the use of university title and as the registration process comes to a close it should be possible to determine which organisations have it, but do not meet the new basic requirements to use it – such as being on the register. This might mean a review for football-related providers, branches of international universities offering UK degrees or some university centres. When the OfS register is complete then we should have a complete record of which education providers are allowed to call themselves a university in England (so my FOI wouldn’t be needed).

Meanwhile, it is important that the authorities do more to investigate organisations that are using the sensitive word without permission. But there will need to be greater transparency both on this and then action taken across a range of different practices. Another recent DfE FOI reply makes it apparent that no further action is to be taken against the directors of Grafton College, who lost course designation in a hurry. There are powers for bodies such as trading standards or the CMA to go after people making false claims, and bodies such as HEDD will help to co-ordinate this work. It matters to us all; we can’t have fake universities. So well done to people like Andy Youell spotting these places, and let’s hope Companies House can be a bit more vigilant next time.