On Tuesday 8 February, the Immigration Minister, Damien Green, appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee to discuss potential policy changes to UK student visas. Others providing evidence to the Committee included UKCISA Chief Executive, Dominic Scott, President of the NUS, Aaron Porter, and Martin Doel and John Mountford from the Association of Colleges.
To view coverage of the meeting on the Parliament TV website, click here.
Damian Green, appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee, was asked whether the Government wanted to cut numbers of students getting UK visas.
Committee Chairman Keith Vaz MP asked about the feeling that Britain would be "closed for business" if the Government's proposals on student visas were adopted.
Mr Green said: "It's perfectly clear from everything I've said... that of course Britain is open for business. Of course we recognise that international aspects of our universities in particular are extremely important to them and us as a country."
Mr Vaz asked if there was a risk that genuine students would be affected.
"The thrust of the policy is to eliminate abuses in the system. The biggest misunderstanding I've found... is that people think the vast bulk of student visas are people coming to university... and that's just factually wrong," replied Mr Green.
He said 40 per cent of visas were for students studying at below university level "and a subset of that, particularly those who are private sector colleges, they are where the problem lies frankly because very few of them are regulated by Ofsted and very few are Highly Trusted Sponsors.
"The key number... is that in the last year 91,000 visas were issued to that particular subsector. So we are not talking about a small number; we're talking about a huge number where we think the potential abuse is likely to lie."
Questioning then turned to bogus colleges, and Mr Green and Home Office director of immigration policy Glyn Williams explained that 58 colleges had had their licenses revoked since May, with a further 237 suspended. Some of these might later have their licences revoked.
Nicola Blackwood MP asked about accreditation bodies. "Accreditation is one of the things we have been consulting on, one of the areas where we have had very positive feedback... when we bring forward proposals accreditation will be a part of it. Accreditation is a mess," said Mr Green.
There were suggestions from the committee about accreditation of agents bringing students to the UK. This, as Mr Green pointed out, risked extending the tentacles of the British state overseas. There was a suggestion from witness Jeremy Oppenheim of the Border Agency that more use might be made of the British Council.
Mr Vaz then questioned Mr Oppenheim about the rise in Bangladesh visa numbers from 3,000 to 17,000 in a year. "We did spot it," he said. "As soon as we saw those numbers we took action to do something about it."
Mr Green then went on to talk about the increasing use of computer technology in the UKBA during the next few years, which meant "we will get smarter at differentiating. That's what this whole student consultation is about."
Asked why the consultation was so wide-ranging, he added: "We want a system that isn't so all-encompassing that people can use it as a loophole... The biggest single loophole has been the student visa system. We want to drive out all the things that lead to the loopholes."
He denied that it would be more difficult for genuine students to study in the UK. "Genuine students doing genuine studies are absolutely not in the firing line. People using the student visa to come here and work in the UK, that's a different issue altogether," said Mr Green. "Genuine students who are coming to study should have no more difficulties."
Julian Huppert MP asked about the effects on pathway providers. "We have said you can bring people in below degree level if you are a Highly Trusted Sponsor and that is clearly one of the areas where we are having fruitful discussions," replied Mr Green.
He denied that there was a "specific number" of student numbers they wanted to cut, but said he had explained the size of the issue to the committee including the numbers of colleges whose certificates had been withdrawn or suspended. "We are not going to have a specific target for the number of student visas issued," he said.
He continued: "There is nervousness whenever you propose change and there is nervousness at the moment."
No date has yet been set for the Government to publish the results of its consultation, said Mr Green.