Oral statement to Parliament

Foreign student visas: Home Secretary's statement

The Home Secretary delivered this statement to the house on 21 March 2011. References of a political nature have been removed.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May

The Home Secretary delivered this statement to the house on 21 March 2011. References of a political nature have been removed.

‘Mr Speaker, the UK has a worldwide reputation for providing quality education to overseas students. Britain is, rightly, the destination of choice for many people wishing to study abroad.

But under the last government the student visa system became the symbol of a broken and abused immigration system.

(Political reference removed)

We had too many people coming here to work and not to study. We had too many foreign graduates staying on in the UK to work in unskilled jobs. And we had too many institutions selling immigration, not education.

We want to attract only the best and the brightest to Britain.

We want high quality international students to come here. We want them to study at genuine institutions, whose primary purpose is providing a first class education. And we want the best of them – and only the best of them – to stay on and work here after their studies are complete.

That is exactly what we are doing across all the immigration routes – we are tightening up the system, tackling the abuse and supporting only the most economically beneficial migrants.

I have already announced and begun to implement our plans to limit economic migration – cutting the numbers by over a fifth compared with last year.

I will be returning to the House later this year with a consultation that will set out proposals that break the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement.

I also intend to consult on changes to the family migration route.I will be bringing forward proposals to tackle sham marriages and other abuse, promote integration and reduce the burdens on the British taxpayer.

We aim to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands, back down to the tens of thousands.

The most significant migrant route to Britain is the student route. And so we must take action here too.

Immigration by students has more than trebled in the last 10 years and is now far larger than through the work or family routes. It is unsurprising that more and more overseas students are attracted by our world renowned higher education institutions. But there has also been an increase in abuse in the private further education sector.

Students now make up the majority of non-EU migrants: including their dependents, they accounted for around two thirds of the visas issued last year under the Points Based System.

When the current system (political reference amended) was introduced in 2009, almost a third more student visas were issued in that year than the year before – an increase from 230,000 to 300,000. Numbers were so high that the UK Border Agency had to suspend student applications in some parts of the world because it could not cope with the demand. Much of that demand was simply not genuine.

We have so called ‘students’ turning up at Heathrow airport who cannot answer basic questions in English or even describe what their course is about. One institution has an intake of 90 per cent international students and only asks for GCSE level qualifications to do a supposedly degree level course. Another college’s own sales agent actually helped a student to cheat in their entry exam.

Legitimate colleges should still be able to recruit legitimate overseas students. But we need to stop the abuse and return some common sense to our student visa system.

Current system

The current system is based on a sponsorship regime which trusts educational institutions to assess the quality and ability of students, and puts the responsibility on the institution to ensure the student is actually studying and obeying the immigration rules.

That trust has been well placed in some sectors: universities, independent schools and publicly funded Further Education colleges mostly take their sponsorship duties seriously and act responsibly.

But some – particularly in the private FE and parts of the English language college sector – are not exercising the due diligence we expect. These institutions make up the largest single group on the sponsor register.

The sector is essentially unregulated : they are not subject to a statutory system of education inspection and can offer any type of course they like.

Although some of these institutions are legitimate, for many their product is not an education – but immigration, together with the ability to work here.

It is absolutely clear that the current regime has failed to control immigration and has failed to protect real students from poor quality colleges.That is why the proposals I am announcing today are unashamedly targeted at the least trustworthy institutions.

Our proposals protect the interests of our world class universities, they protect our leading independent schools and public FE colleges, and, ultimately, they are in the best interests of legitimate students.

New Proposals: Accreditation

In future all sponsors will need to have been vetted byone of theapproved inspectorates –either Ofsted and its devolved equivalents,the Quality Assurance Agency or therelevant independent schools inspectorate - and all must become Highly Trusted Sponsors.

Once they achieve that status, private colleges offering quality, bona fide training programmes of genuine educational value will be able to continue to recruit legitimate international students.

All current sponsors who do not meet the requirements will be allowed to stay on the register for a short period from April 2011. During that time they will be limited in the number of students they may sponsor. They will first have to apply for Highly Trusted Sponsor status and accreditation. They will then be required to achieve Highly Trusted Sponsor Status by no later than April 2012 and accreditation by the relevant agency by the end of 2012.

Entry Requirements

As well as cracking down on bogus colleges, we will also crackdown on bogus students.

Students who want to come here should be able to speak English, to support themselves financially without taking paid employment, and to show they are coming for study, not for work.

So we will toughen up the entry requirements.

First, we will strengthen the evidence that students need to demonstrate that they have the financial means to fend for themselves.

Second, we will streamline the requirements for students from low risk countries and prioritise resources on high-risk students.

Third, we will toughen up the rules on English language competence. Those coming to study at degree level will have to speak English at an upper intermediate level. Others will have to speak English at an intermediate level.

And UKBA officers will be given the discretion to refuse entry to students who can’t speak English without an interpreter and who do not meet the required minimum standards.

Let me be clear: you need to speak English to learn at our education establishments. If you can’t, we won’t give you a visa.


If someone is coming to the UK as a student, study should be their main purpose – not work.

So we will end permission to work during term time from all students other than those at university and publicly-funded further education colleges. Students at public sector FE colleges will be allowed to work for 10 hours per week and students at university for 20 hours per week.

We will reduce the amount of work that can be done on work placement courses for non-university students from 50:50 as now, to two-thirds study, one third work.

At present, students on courses of six months or more can bring their dependants with them. In 2010 over 31,000 student dependants came here. We will remove this right for all but postgraduate students at universities and government-sponsored students.

Post study

Coming to the UK to study a course should, by definition, be a temporary step. So we will limit the amount of time students can spend in the UK.

Too many students who originally come on short courses have been staying here for years and years by changing courses, often without showing any tangible academic progress.

We will limit the overall time that can be spent on a student visa to three years atlower levels, as now,and five years at higher levels.

There will be exceptions for longer courses such as medicine and veterinary science and PhD study, but no longer will students be able to stay here and switch from course, to course, to course.

We want the very best international graduates to stay on and contribute to the UK economy. But the arrangements we have been left with for students who graduate in the UK are far too generous. They are able to stay for two years, whether or not they find a job and regardless of the skill level of that job. In 2010, at a time when one in ten UK graduates were unemployed, 39,000 non-EU students with 8,000 dependents took advantage of this generosity.

So we will close the current Post Study Work route from April next year. In future, only those graduates who have an offer of a skilled graduate level job from an employer who is licensed by the UK Border Agency will be allowed to stay.

Post Study migrants must be paid at least £20,000 or the appropriate rate for the occupation, as set out in the relevant code of practice, whichever is higher. This will prevent employers from recruiting migrants into skilled occupations, but paying them less than the going rate.

We estimate that had this been applied last year it would have halved the numbers staying in the UK through this route.

We will not impose a limit on this group next year, but we will keep this position under review.

If the number of foreign students entering the labour market as post study workers increases significantly and unexpectedly, then we will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to look at how any abuses can best be addressed – this would potentially include the introduction of a separate temporary limit on post study workers.

As we restrict the Post Study Work route, we will ensure that innovative student entrepreneurs who are creating wealth are able to stay in the UK to pursue their ideas.

The message to the brightest and the best students around the globe is clear – Britain’s world class universities remain open for business.


We recognise the need to implement these changes in a staged manner which minimises disruption to education providers and students. Therefore we will implement the measures in 3 stages, starting with new Rules which will be laid by the end of this month. I will publish full details shortly.


Mr Speaker, the package of measures I have outlined today is expected to reduce the number of student visas by 70 to 80 thousand – a reduction of over 25 per cent – and it will increase the outflow of foreign students after they have concluded their studies.

A proper system of accreditation to root out bogus colleges.

Tough new rules on English language, on financial guarantees, on working rights, and on dependents to root out bogus students.

And new restrictions on post-study work to make sure all but the very best return home after study.

This package will stop the bogus students, studying meaningless courses at fake colleges.

It will protect our world class institutions.

It will stop the abuse. (political reference removed)

And it will restore some sanity to our student visa system.

And I commend it to the House.’

Updates to this page

Published 21 March 2011