Immigration: Damian Green's speech to the Reform Think Thank

Immigration minister Damian Green gave this speech to the Reform Think Thank on Tuesday 1 February 2011.

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

Reforming the immigration system and reducing the level of immigration to a sustainable number is one of the big tasks of this Government. The uncontrolled immigration levels of the previous decade led to a loss of public confidence, strain on public services, and an increase in the visibility of extremist politicians holding unpleasant views, seeking to exploit the problem. We need to reverse this, and we are doing just that.

We have made clear that we will take a different approach, that we will tighten up our system, stop abuse and support only the most economically beneficial migrants.  We have set out our approach this year to economic migration, we have consulted on student migration and we will consult on families and settlement.  We have indicated that, through a more rigorous and controlled approach, we will see fewer non-EU migrants than in the past.

Our goal is an improved system that commands the confidence of the public and serves our economic interests.  We would expect this to come through a system which shows a significant fall in net migration to the UK from the hundreds of thousands we have seen in recent years to tens of thousands.

In 2009, net migration was at nearly 200,000.  For non-EEA migrants (that is, excluding British and EU citizens) - who are subject to immigration control - it was around 184,000. 

My task is to reduce the numbers coming, increase the numbers leaving when their visas are up and to eliminate abuse of the system. So I am taking action to tighten our migration system across all entry routes for non EEA-migrants - work, students and family - and to break the link between temporary routes and permanent settlement. Some of these measures will take effect in the short term. Others will set us on a long-term road to sustainable immigration, where Britain benefits economically and culturally from new skills and backgrounds, but in a context where people are at ease with the changes they see around them.

Economic routes

We have started by limiting economic migration. In November we announced a limit of 20,700 skilled workers entering for the 12 months from 6 April.  We are raising the minimum skill level and ensuring that all economic migrants have a job offer before they come.

At the same time we want to make it easier for the brightest and best to come here. We have exempted intra company transfers for those who earn over £40 000 from the limit on non EU economic migration. We want to attract entrepreneurs, investors and those with exceptional talent in the arts and sciences.   We will provide 1,000 visas a year for our new category of exceptional talent.  So this is not about closing our doors; it is about a more selective approach in the interests of Britain.

Family and settlement

We need to improve controls in all routes of immigration. Take what is called the family route. In 2009 38,000 people were issued with a marriage visa to come to the UK and 56,000 obtained indefinite leave to remain by dint of marriage (excluding dependants). Last November we introduced a requirement for all those applying for a marriage visa to demonstrate a minimum standard of English.  We are also cracking down on sham marriages. We will consult later this year on further proposals in this area.

We also need to be much clearer about those who are coming here for a time, and those who come here to settle. Since 1997, there has also been an eight fold increase in the numbers settling in the UK from employment-related categories.  In 2009 it was 81,000 including dependants.  The corresponding figure in 1997 was 10,000.  I want a position where Britain continues to attract the best workers, who make a strong contribution to our economy and society during their stay. But it cannot be right that people coming to fill temporary skills gaps have open access to permanent settlement. Therefore, I intend to consult on all routes to settlement in the Spring. 

Student migration

Today, however, I would like to focus on the student migration system. The majority of non-EU migrants are students. Our public consultation on the student visa system closed yesterday and we are carefully considering responses to this before finalising our proposals.

In 2009, we issued 273,000 visas to students in Tier 4 of the points-based system - including pre-PBS equivalents. A further 30,000 were issued to their dependants. The student route is the largest source of migration, albeit temporary.

I recognise the important contribution that international students make to our economy and cultural life and to making our education system one of the best in the world. It is a tribute to the excellence of our universities and colleges that they have been so successful in developing international educational activities as a major contributor to economic growth. In 2007/08 the total value of international educational activities to the UK economy was over £5 billion. My aim is not remotely to stop this happening. We want more, not less, of the benefits of these educational activities. I am seeking to eliminate abuses within the system.

We have been clear that we will do nothing to prevent those coming here to study degree level courses and will protect our world class academic institutions above and below degree level. So the universities, all of whom are highly trusted sponsors of foreign students, should not worry. We want to make sure that every student who comes to this country is a legitimate student following a legitimate course.

Stricter control will be in the best interest of legitimate students. Some of those who come to study at less reputable institutions are genuinely in search of education which they do not receive. They may have been misled by questionable agents overseas or by these colleges. In either case, unsuspecting students may end up out of pocket, without the education they wanted and stuck illegally in the UK. Action to strengthen the student visa route will help protect the unsuspecting from being defrauded.

We have looked at rates of compliance - i.e. whether we could account for the whereabouts of students to whom we had given a visa.   There are high rates of compliance amongst our universities, publicly funded FE colleges and independent schools.  I thank and congratulate them for their efforts in this field.

Private sector

But, and there is always a but, the picture is much less reassuring in the private further education sector. Of course, not all private providers are cause for concern, far from it. Many private providers perform the important function of language and other preparatory training before entrance to Universities. But there are a significant number where we do need to take action.  In a sample of students studying at private institutions about which we had concerns, up to 26 per cent of them could not be accounted for. 

We know they entered the UK, we know they are no longer at the college who sponsored them but we are unable to identify them as having left Britain. Some may have departed, but the proportion we cannot account for is much higher in the private sector than appears to be the case in other sectors.

Since tier 4 started the UK Border Agency has revoked the sponsorship licence of 58 colleges. They were all privately funded colleges of further education. The UK Border Agency has also suspended (since the launch of tier 4) a total of 247 sponsors, of which 208 are privately funded.

There are 248 B rated sponsors on the register, who are having to take remedial action to satisfy the UK Border Agency they are fit to remain on the register.  220 of these are privately funded.

Understandably this concerns me deeply, so I have been turning over the stones in this area. I have to report that some unpleasant things have crawled out. Let me share some of the facts I have discovered.

On the UK Border Agency sponsor register of 2298 licensed colleges, 744 are private colleges, excluding independent schools registered with the Department for Education.  Only 34 of the 744 have identified themselves as being subject to OFSTED inspection. And of those 744, 131 - or 18 per cent - have so far attained highly trusted sponsor status. To compare with the public education bodies, 76 per cent of them are highly trusted.

As of mid-January of this year, the 613 private colleges who are not highly trusted have had the ability to sponsor a total of 280,000 international students between them.  Looking in detail at these figures, 120,000 of the 280,000 have been assigned to individuals, and 91,000 of these were used in visa applications in the past 12 months. That’s up to 91,000 people coming here to “study” at institutions which are not verified as highly trusted. The potential for abuse is clearly enormous.

I have also looked more closely at the 58 colleges whose licences have been revoked. 14,000 visas were issued for these colleges, of which at least 12,000 were issued since 2009.  IT and business courses were popular among their international students and they charged fees averaging £3700 a year.

I would like to give you some insights into practices at some colleges. In one, no classroom study was being undertaken. Instead students were being sent on so-called work placements in locations up to 280 miles away from the college where they were supposed to be studying on a regular basis.They were working excessive hours.

In another case, students were found working in 20 different locations and undertaking no study time. The work placements, which were supposed to be in the health and social care sector, included jobs as a cleaner in a pizza chain and as a hairdresser. The college was also employing a worker illegally on a fake British passport.

In another case, there were 2 lecturers for 940 students.  Students were attending classes for 1 day a month and working excessive hours the rest of the time.

And we have numerous other reports of questionable practice by sponsors, for example:

  • students being allowed on arrival to enrol on courses at a lower level than the one specified on the certificate of sponsorship
  • colleges happy to enrol students despite being warned by a UK Border Agency officer they speak little or no English or  have no knowledge of the course they are due to attend or the location of the college
  • courses being re-classified at a higher NQF level to avoid restrictions on lower level courses, or of English colleges adopting Scottish exams apparently because of the slightly different PBS rules which apply
  • colleges happy to accept students who have been out of formal education for many years and who have a poor academic record
  • poor due diligence on prospective students.  In June last year in New Delhi, 35 per cent of student applications verified by the visa section were found to contain forged documents.  Why did the college not exercise more care before offering a place? As an objective system which has removed discretion from entry clearance officers, PBS relies on sponsors exercising great care when selecting students

I want to be clear that I am not saying that every college in the private sector is abusing the system. Many of them are doing valuable work. But I am concerned about standards amongst this constituency of education provider.

That is why I have consulted on proposals to raise standards through tougher requirements on sponsors and students:

  • that only providers who are Highly Trusted will be able to offer courses below degree level (NQF level 6)
  • that we create a stricter system of accreditation and inspection for those providers not regulated by OFSTED
  • that all tier 4 students should speak English at upper intermediate level on the European reference framework (bearing in mind the minimum level of course in tier 4 is A-level equivalent and above)
  • to increase the ratio of classroom study to work on courses with a work placement component

Entitlement to work

I have other concerns and other proposals to tell you about. Because we not only need to be admitting the right students, we need to know that they are behaving properly when they are here.  For example let me turn to students’ entitlement to work and to sponsor their dependants to join them.

The primary objective of studying in the UK must be to study, not to work or to acquire long-term residency status. I recognise that some students will want to work part-time during their studies to help support themselves and gain experience in the workplace. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest there is significant working in breach of the prescribed hours. 

UK Border Agency enforcement teams regularly encounter this. For example they recently picked up students who were supposed to be studying in London, but who were actually living and working in West Wales.

We have consulted on the proposal that students should only be able to work off campus at weekends and during holidays only, to make the permitted hours clearer. 

I mentioned earlier that in 2009 some 30,000 dependants of students were issued visas, which is more than 10 per cent of the number of students.

The UK Border Agency interviewed a sample of 231 student dependant applicants in Nepal last year.  Of these, 21 per cent withdrew their applications when called to interview and 6 per cent failed to attend. 

15 per cent were judged not to be in a genuine relationship with the student sponsor and a further 16 per cent were deemed inconclusive.    Only 25% of the sample were granted entry clearance as dependants and 46 per cent were refused. 

76 per cent of the dependants were males, and 83 per cent of the students were studying at below degree level.  

At present, student dependants have full access to the UK labour market and that is a powerful attraction which may be driving numbers.  We have proposed that in future student dependants should only be able to take skilled jobs, in Tier 2 of the points based system.  And, a student may only sponsor a dependant if the course is of more than 12 months’ duration. 

Length of stay

The next area to tackle is those who quietly drift from a temporary stay to a permanent one.  We estimate that around 23,000 people who were granted settlement in 2009 initially came to the UK on a study visa (around 13 per cent of the settlement grants that year). The Home Office’s report ‘The Migrant Journey’ also showed that more than one-fifth of students who were granted visas in 2004 were still here in 2009.

The majority of those who remained had done so through acquiring a skilled job or through marriage as the student visa does not in itself confer a right to apply for settlement. However, in 2009 there were 109,000 extensions of student visas by those already here. We also have evidence to suggest that some students may be prolonging their studies in order to achieve an extended stay in the UK or even settlement through long residency rules.

We know that some modular courses allow students repeatedly to fail and retake modules. We must get back to a situation where students complete their courses in a timely manner and only seek to prolong their studies where there is a good academic reason for so doing.

We have also consulted on the proposal that students must show evidence of progression in their studies if they wish to extend their stay, and should return home between courses. 

Working after graduation

Turning now to what happens when students stop studying and start paid work, normally, students - as temporary migrants - should leave the UK upon completion of their studies. I accept that some will want to stay to work, and we want the most talented graduates to contribute.

The post study work route was intended to form a bridge between study and skilled work, allowing all international graduates to remain for two years after graduation. In 2009 around 38,000 entered Post Study Work (excluding dependants). 

A recent survey of points-based system users in this category suggested that only around half of them were in a skilled occupation. Many go into secretarial, sales, customer service and catering roles.

At a time when graduate unemployment is at its highest level for seventeen years we need a more targeted approach. I proposed in the consultation that students should still be able to switch into tier 2 jobs, but they must have an offer from a sponsor rather than having unfettered access to the UK labour market for two years through the Post Study route, competing for jobs with the hundreds of thousands of unemployed UK graduates. We will consider the options, for example reducing the length of time that graduates can seek skilled work in the UK, in the light of the consultation responses


We have compared our student visa system with that of the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. A key difference is that their systems have a greater element of flexibility than the one size fits all approach of tier 4.

We are proposing to develop the highly trusted sponsor concept as step towards differentiation but I am also proposing to differentiate between high and low risk students.  We shall make the visa application process easier for the lowest risk ones.  
I believe our reformed system will be on a par with others, and will not place legitimate education providers or students at a disadvantage. 

I recognise the role that English language colleges and foundation courses have to play. I have already temporarily extended the student visitor visa, which is outside tier 4, so that English language students can use it to study here for up to 11 months rather than 6. 

I have also received strong representations about the role of language colleges in preparing international students to access higher education and will review carefully the impact of my proposals in this respect.

Next steps

Now the public consultation is closed, the Home Office will carefully consider the 30,000 responses from organisations and individuals, working closely with our colleagues at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

The government will finalise its proposals and announce our response as soon as possible. We will create a strong framework for student migration which will require education providers to tighten and improve their selection and recruitment procedures. There will be a greater emphasis on quality and we shall drive abuse out of the system.  This will generate public confidence in the immigration system and ultimately will be good for all the legitimate international students who are welcome to study here.

These changes to the student route are a vital building block in our overall immigration policy. When they are implemented we will have a student sector that we can be even more proud of, and an immigration system that has taken a significant step forward towards stability, sustainability and public confidence.


Published 1 February 2011