My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is today laying before the House a statement of changes in the immigration rules. The changes support the introduction of a new targeted interview programme by the UK Border Agency, to ensure students seeking to abuse the immigration system are identified and refused a visa for the UK. The UK Border Agency plans to interview between 10,000 and 14,000 student visa applicants over the coming year.
The first change makes provision for an entry clearance officer to be satisfied that an applicant is a genuine student before granting entry clearance under tier 4 of the points-based system. The second change makes provision for an entry clearance officer to refuse to issue entry clearance where the applicant fails to attend an interview without providing a reasonable explanation. Both changes will be effective from 30 July 2012.
From December 2011 to the end of February 2012 the UK Border Agency ran an interviewing pilot. The pilot assessed the effectiveness of interviewing more student visa applicants. It also considered the requirement for and potential impact of a new power to refuse entry clearance on grounds of genuineness. Over 2,300 visa applicants from 47 countries were interviewed. Seventeen per cent of those interviewed were refused a visa under existing powers. Entry clearance officers indicated they could have refused up to 32% of the remainder on grounds of genuineness. The full evaluation report of the pilot is being published today, and a copy has been placed in the Library of the House.
Since 2011 the Government have overhauled the student visa system to tackle abuse while continuing to attract and retain the brightest and best students who will help drive growth in the economy. It has introduced a range of measures to tighten controls on institutions sponsoring international students, remove the entitlements that provided false incentives to those motivated by work not study, and ensure only those with the most to offer remain in the UK at the end of their course. Over 450 colleges have now lost their right to bring international students to the UK, and the number of student visas issued in the year to March 2012 fell by 21%.
While these changes have significantly strengthened the student visa regime, the pilot study identified some residual abuse. The findings indicate that targeted overseas interviews, supported by new powers of refusal, are useful additional tools to support entry clearance officers to identify and tackle it. These risk-based controls will be used alongside the wide range of other checks already operated by the UK Border Agency.
These measures do not alter the duty on tier 4 sponsors to satisfy themselves that an applicant is able and intends to follow the course of study. They are designed to protect reputable providers that have made offers to students in good faith, and would otherwise risk UK Border Agency compliance action. Providers often undertake recruitment activity remotely, through agents.
Interviewing will provide an additional layer of scrutiny, where needed, to help safeguard institutions. Interviews also will provide applicants with every opportunity to demonstrate how they meet the genuine student rule. Students from low-risk countries who already benefit from a streamlined visa application process will be exempt from the genuineness test.
Further details on the application of these provisions will be set out in UK Border Agency guidance.