As UK undergraduates are increasingly wary about commencing postgraduate courses while already saddled with debt, our universities are growing ever more dependent on overseas postgraduate students to justify employing research staff in certain areas, keeping some undergraduate courses and even whole subject areas viable. Prime Minister Tony Blair wants more overseas students studying here; Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell even wants them to stay permanently. And how does the Home Office propose to encourage this? By doubling visa extension charges. Joined-up government, or what?
These increases, proposed for April, would make it more expensive for overseas graduands whose visas expire a few months, or even weeks, before graduation to remain in the country for their ceremony than it would to take out British citizinship. Carefully-planned budgets will be ruined. Students whose progress to the next level of study depends on results at their current level may find they can go no further. Applicants not guaranteed places for PhD courses following masters may look elsewhere in the global market.
The recent increase in the number of overseas students in the UK is astonishing: only a minority of full-time taught masters students at UK HEIs are UK citizens, and 48% are from outside the EU, more in the newer universities. And of course, they spend billions while here. And why are the charges being proposed? Officially, to cover costs but, if it deters people from coming here in the first place, it is rather a false economy. It also comes pretty close on the heels of tabloid-induced outrage at the number of bogus students gaining visas for non-existent courses.
If this proposal goes ahead, the Government will wreck its own vision for postgraduate education, merely to keep the tabloid mob at bay. Reports of non-existent language schools may be accurate, but the way to deal with the problem is to check on their existence and accreditation, which is easily done. Stopping people coming to our universities is not the answer.
The proposed increases should be abandoned. As a PhD usually takes four years from initial matriculation to graduation, a visa should be issued for that time as a general rule, removing the need for extensions in most cases. Arguably, students should be exempted from visa charges altogether, as is already the case for council tax - especially as some student unions submit applications in batches, saving the Home Office much of the labour - and cost. After all, it should not be too difficult for the Government to list all the real universities in the country.