Damian Green's QAA conference speech

This speech was given by Immigration Minister Damian Green on 7 July at Regent's college. This version of the speech is as spoken.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Damian Green MP

Thank you very much for inviting me here today. I know from the sheer size and weight of my postbag that the changes we are making to Tier 4, and especially those most affecting private providers of further and higher education, are of a significant interest to these parts of the education sector.  I wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to address you today to explain first hand why the changes we are making are vital if we are to tackle abuse of the student immigration system.

Immigration controls are usually portrayed as a problem for this sector.  But I strongly believe that the changes we are making will enhance the reputation of the UK’s education sector as a whole.  They will do this by raising the quality of international students and by eliminating poor quality colleges.  The QAA’s involvement in the new educational oversight requirements will seek to ensure that the same high standards are achieved in all institutions offering higher education, regardless of whether or not they are in receipt of public funding.

The UK is world-renowned for the quality and range of opportunities available across our education sectors, and the students that choose to study here from across the globe bring numerous cultural, social and economic benefits, both to the UK and to their own countries when they return.

But the student visa system isn’t up to scratch - it has failed to control immigration, failed to select the brightest and best and failed to protect legitimate students.  The primary motivation of too many users of the student immigration system is not to receive a high-quality education but to live and work here instead.  And too many of the institutions that have managed to obtain a sponsor licence under Tier 4 are essentially providing an immigration service, not an educational one.

We have endless examples of institutions and so-called students working the system to get around changes made to try and reduce the levels of abuse - such as the initial introduction in 2010 of language requirements and rights to work and bring dependants. We have seen numerous colleges that provide minimal or no tuition or classroom study.  We have encountered students barely able to hold a conversation in English turning up to ‘study’ degree-level courses. 

In 2010, Tier 4 represented 14 per cent of visas issued but Tier 4 visa holders were responsible for 41 per cent of port refusals. The equivalent figures for Tiers 1, 2 and 5 visa holders were all less than one per cent.

The student route is a temporary one, and once a student has completed their course, we expect them to return to their countries of origin.  But this is not happening - a Home Office Research Study ‘The Migrant Journey’ published last year found that just over one-fifth (21 per cent) of the 2004 student migrant cohort were still here five years later.  The same report showed that in 2009, settlement was granted to more than 23,000 people who originally came to the UK in a study route - this represents 13% of all those to whom settlement was granted that year.  And we know that about 110,000 students already here are extending their visa each year, some several times.  That’s why we are going to limit the time a student can spend in Tier 4.

Reducing net migration is as much about increasing the number of people leaving the UK after their initial stay as it is reducing the number of people coming in.  That is why we are now consulting on proposals for the reform of employment-related settlement rules, drawing a clear line between temporary routes and those that may eventually lead to settlement.

But we now need to move forward and put in place a stable and secure system which meets all our needs.  We want genuine students coming to attend courses of high educational value at legitimate and responsible institutions.  The UK needs to maintain its international reputation for providing top quality education and we want the very best students to stay in the UK on completing their studies.  This is exactly what the Government’s proposals are designed to deliver. 

Following completion of our review of the economic routes to the UK, focus turned to the student routes, as one of the key commitments of the Government was to minimise abuse in this (as well as other) immigration routes.  Between December last year and the end of January this year, we consulted on a number of proposals to support our objective of minimising abuse of the student visa system, and in addition supporting work we had started in other areas to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands over the course of this Parliament. 

We received over 30,000 responses to the online questionnaire and a further 300 or so full written responses.  The volume of responses alone indicated the strength of feeling towards at least some of the reforms, and we listened to those responses.

The system of accreditation that was introduced when Tier 4 was first  being set up - essentially to ensure the quality of education provision offered by institutions operating in the largely unregulated privately funded sectors of further and higher education and English language schools - was a key concern to me in the review of the student system.  That is why one of the proposals in the consultation document was concerned with improving standards within the private sectors.

Almost two-thirds of respondents to the question on this in the consultation document agreed - and this suggested to me that a more radical solution, rather than simply tinkering around the edges of an already broken system, would be needed to see the necessary change in education quality within these parts of the education sector.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are pockets of very high quality provision within the private sectors - including, but not limited to, very specialist providers operating in niche areas.  But at the same time, of the 64 institutions whose Tier 4 licences were revoked by the UK Border Agency for serious non-compliance since Tier 4 was launched, they were exclusively institutions operating within the private sectors.

I do not believe it is a mere coincidence that those whose education provision is subject to a form of statutory oversight - whether because of the receipt of public funding, or the award of degree awarding powers, or because they are independent schools bound by stringent regulations relating to the education of minors - are performing better in relation to their immigration duties as licensed sponsors.

Better educational oversight arrangements were therefore a key part of the Home Secretary’s announcement of 22 March about reform of the student system. The themes of these reforms are:

  • stricter sponsor requirements
  • tougher entry requirements
  • limiting entitlements to work and sponsor dependants
  • ensuring students return overseas after their course
  • simpler procedures for checking low risk applications  

We have moved quickly to press ahead with our reforms.  On 31 March, I published a Statement of Intent which set out the changes we plan to make to reform the student route between then and the end of 2012. 

On the same date, I laid before Parliament the first set of amendments to the Immigration Rules, and the UK Border Agency published accompanying guidance which came into effect on 21 April.

In this first group of changes, we announced new educational oversight and immigration compliance requirements.  For those that do not already meet these requirements, we introduced an interim limit on the allocation of the number of Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies, or CAS, given to these sponsors.  Each sponsor’s limit is based on the number of CAS institutions used during the previous year.  The limit responds to the urgent need to tackle abuse, allows sponsors time to adjust to the new system and prevents surges in applications from high-risk sectors.

In addition to the changes we are making to strengthen the sponsor register, we are also taking a number of steps to ensure that only international students with a genuine intention to study their chosen course are able to use Tier 4.

To this end, we have raised the bar on entry requirements.  Since 21 April, all sponsors of students coming to study degree-level courses must ensure they are able to speak English at an upper intermediate level, i.e. B2 on the Common European Framework. Others will have to speak English at an intermediate level - B1.  And if students cannot answer basic questions in English about their course, UKBA officers will refuse them at the border.  Most will be required to have passed a secure English language test, but in recognition of the greater compliance and range of established methods for testing language ability, higher education institutions are able to choose their own methods of language assessment. 

On 13 June, I laid before Parliament the second set of changes to Tier 4 following on from the review.  These changes took effect on Monday, and largely seek to sort the students who are driven by the desire to study, from those whose motivation may not be academic.

I have introduced more rigorous checks to ensure students’ funds to support themselves are invested in a reputable financial institution and continue to be genuinely available to them once they get here.

Students’ primary motivation should be to study, not work.  Those applying for entry clearance or leave to remain since 4 July will only be given permission to work if they are studying at higher education institutions and publicly-funded further education colleges.

As an aside, I have been told that denying permission to work to students studying in the private sectors is the single most damaging change to have come out of the review for private providers.  To my mind, an international student’s motivation in coming to the UK should be to study, not to work - whether during or after their studies.  Even for those who have permission to work, actually finding work in the UK is by no means guaranteed so I think the assertion that being able to work has been and is a key pull factor is to - say the least - questionable.

Taking this one step further - a student’s motivation in coming to the UK should be to study, not to bring spouses and partners who may be given permission to work, and not to bring children who can access our state education system.  So now, only students studying at higher education institutions, for at least a year at postgraduate level, and Government sponsored students studying for longer than six months are now able to bring their dependants with them.  We will allow family members of students who have already spent time in the UK to extend their stay in certain circumstances. 

We have also streamlined the application process for students who are nationals of a low-risk country and who are coming to study with a Highly Trusted Sponsor.  These students will no longer routinely need to present original financial and educational documents which will make the application process significantly easier for these applicants.

From a sponsorship perspective, the most recent changes now require education providers to confirm that any further study a student is undertaking represents genuine academic progression.

We are also preparing to make further changes which we will implement next April.  Study in the UK should, for the vast majority, mean a temporary stay.  Only in exceptional cases should students stay for prolonged periods or remain after their course.  That is why, from April next year, we will set a maximum time of five years in Tier 4 studying at degree level and above, with exceptions for some courses and PhD students. We plan to undertake a further, focussed consultation on this with institutions to understand where else there is a legitimate reason for students to remain longer than five years.

From next April we will also reduce the amount of work that can be done on work placement courses for non-university students to two-thirds study, one third work, to refocus the route as one where study should take up the majority of a student’s time in the UK. And we will close Tier 1 Post Study Work, maintaining a route into skilled sponsored employment through Tier 2.

Overall, this package of reforms targets the least compliant students and institutions.  For too long, the privately-funded education sector has been essentially unregulated.  And yet evidence is clear that some of these institutions pose the biggest risk to immigration control.  In a sample of Tier 4 students studying at private institutions about which the UK Border Agency had concerns, up to 26 percent of them could not be accounted for.  I strongly believe that the lack of regulation within the private sector has led to a deficiency in the quality of sponsorship, and this is what we are trying to remedy through the changes we are making.

The very fact you are here at this conference today suggests to me you believe you have a high quality educational offering to give to international students, and you are keen to know what will be required of you in order to remain able to bring international students to the UK under Tier 4 in the future.

Sponsorship is at the very heart of Tier 4.  As responsible licensed education providers, you will be all too aware of the fact that the system of sponsorship relies heavily on the decisions you make when recruiting international students.  It is your responsibility as a licensed sponsor to assess the intentions and ability of a prospective student. We need to make absolutely sure that sponsors are exercising their powers responsibly; and that is what our reforms are designed to achieve.

Since April, all education providers applying for a Tier 4 sponsor licence must now be vetted by one of the approved inspectorates - either Ofsted and its devolved equivalents, the Quality Assurance Agency or the relevant independent schools inspectorate - and all must become Highly Trusted Sponsors.  We will announce shortly details of the changes we are making to the criteria that will need to be met in order to qualify for Highly Trusted Sponsor status.  In due course, all sponsors will be required to have been vetted by one of a number of bodies in order to remain on the sponsor register after the end of 2012.

Existing sponsors must also now meet both our immigration requirements and high standards of educational provision.  Institutions that do not meet these requirements already are subject to a limit on the number of students they can bring in.  To stay on the sponsor register in the longer term they must achieve Highly Trusted Sponsor status by no later than April 2012 and have received a satisfactory review or inspection by the relevant agency by the end of 2012.  We are well on track to deliver a sponsorship system the public can trust.

Since the initial announcement, we have been working very closely with the eight bodies to finalise their respective roles and level of involvement in this area of work.

On 13 June, we announced further information, providing details of the bodies that would be extending their current activities to review or inspect education providers operating within the private sectors.

The Quality Assurance Agency will work across the UK to review the educational standards applied in private institutions offering predominantly higher education, with the Independent Schools Inspectorate working in the privately funded further education and language school sectors.

The QAA and the Independent Schools Inspectorate have been working together behind the scenes to ensure a commonality of approach, where this is applicable bearing in mind the differences between the sectors they will respectively review or inspect.  Their clear understanding of each others’ roles and good working relationship assures me that there will be no opportunity for an institution to hedge its bets by applying to both bodies for review - in the hope that both might inspect, with one applying less rigorous methods than the other.  It is clear which institution type falls to which body, and in any event, the way in which their experienced staff will review or inspect the standards applied by education providers will ensure that only those genuinely meeting the grade will be judged as doing so. 

The QAA was established with the objective of safeguarding quality and standards in UK higher education.  The QAA is therefore the natural ‘home’ and an authoritative voice as an educational oversight body when it comes to the review of private providers operating within the broad banner of higher education.  Up to now, the QAA’s activities have focussed on the review of institutions delivering education which ultimately leads to the award of UK degrees.  In this role, the QAA already has a broad experience of the methods employed in and interaction between both the publicly-funded and private funded sectors.

The QAA is driven by its key objective, and seeks to preserve and enhance the highest educational standards and quality in higher education across the UK. I have been very impressed at the way in which the QAA has embraced this extension of their activities - all too aware of the importance the task ahead of them, but relishing the opportunity to be the UK’s single body responsible for reviewing standards in higher education.

I am very grateful for all the work they have done so far in preparing for their role as an educational oversight body for Tier 4 purposes, and of course for the hard work they have put into organising this event today.

I am certain that the QAA’s knowledgeable reviewers have the wealth of experience required in order to undertake thorough, objective reviews of private higher education providers - after all many of them will have visited these providers in assuring the quality of universities who have partnership arrangements with private sector providers.

Just a fortnight ago, there was widespread coverage of the QAA’s recent review of the validation processes followed by the University of Wales.  Their review identified serious shortcomings which will need to be addressed as a matter of urgency - shortcomings which apparently led to the Welsh Education Minister saying the University had brought the nation into disrepute.  The coverage brought home to me how important a good reputation is to education providers - how difficult to acquire but easy to lose.

But it also assured me that the QAA is the right body to be reviewing all providers of higher education in the UK.  Their review process is objective and transparent - and publication of the report at the end allows all those who are interested to read it in full.  Whilst clearly not afraid to draw attention to areas in which standards have not been met, the QAA also demonstrated sensitive and careful handling of the issues relating to the University of Wales, conscious, I’m sure, at all times of the wider implications on the reputation of UK higher education.

They and I wholly appreciate just how significant this piece of work will be in reshaping the Tier 4 sponsor register - but we must not forget the additional positive effect QAA’s involvement will have on private institutions wishing to compete with universities, in view of the changing higher education landscape in relation to domestic students.  The value of a QAA review, as the experts in UK higher education provision, can only assist in setting apart private providers employing the highest standards from competitors within both the private and publicly-funded sectors.

So, going back to what I said earlier, far from seeing our reforms as a threat, I think in the long run they offer a real opportunity for the best providers within the private higher education sector to show students, not just international students but those closer to home as well, what they have on offer.

I believe the changes we are implementing to the educational oversight requirements, alongside the requirement for all sponsors to demonstrate the highest levels of immigration compliance by obtaining Highly Trusted Sponsor status, will result in a far strengthened register of licensed Tier 4 sponsors.

Taken alongside the numerous other changes we are making to Tier 4 which were set out in the Statement of Intent on student visas, I am confident we will deliver the student immigration system that the country needs, whilst enhancing the UK’s world-class reputation in delivering high quality education to international students.


Published 7 July 2011