£67 million on visa compliance – but is the money being spent in the right areas?

The recent Higher Education Better Regulation Group report which estimated that the UK higher education sector has spent £67 million on visa compliance, got me thinking. Has it really been five years since the Points Based System (PBS) was introduced?

It immediately took me back to when I was working at the University of East Anglia and I was asked to lead on a little project for about six to eight months to make sure that the University’s visa letters had consistency across the faculties and included our new licence number.  It’s funny how that little project has evolved as per the HEBRG report and cost HE institutions £67 million, but surely that must also be seen as an investment in one of the UK’s most valuable export sectors and, more importantly in supporting students on their journey to the United Kingdom?

I know that I am part of that cost, as I’m now doing this as a living rather than the initial little project. I left the University of East Anglia a year ago to join INTO University Partnerships as the Compliance Manager to cover all UK operations and I was shocked, but not surprised, at just how differently each university understood, and put into practice their understanding, of the guidance. But that’s a matter for another blog. One thing that has really struck me since working for INTO is; that this is what INTO does, day in day out, but it’s also about the investment in the students and their experience.

I’ve recently visited China to hold compliance workshops for our staff and agents that we work with across China and it was in China that I understood just how far the cost of getting compliance correct really stretches. As I came from an administrative role within a university into dealing with compliance, I hadn’t been involved with overseas recruitment and therefore had no idea of the relationships between students and agents, apart from what I had as preconceived ideas from horror stories that I had been told, and that agents are bad!

This could not be further from the truth because not only are agent dependent on their reputation, but also the success of these students who are in the UK studying. I had no idea that they maintain the relationships when the students are in the UK and make sure that everything is as the student expected. I had one agent in Beijing who asked me where in the UK I lived. When I replied Norwich and that I used to work at UEA before INTO, he immediately got his smart phone out and logged onto a social network to show me one of his students who had just posted a picture of the campus in the morning sunshine and I was in China looking at a campus that I spent 10 years working at, then the next photo was of the breakfast that they had cooked that morning. I was truly amazed that they still cared and had that relationship with, and duty of care for the students that they had placed thousands of miles away.

I agree that higher education has invested £66 million, maybe more. I’ve witnessed this over the last five years at sector events where more and more staff have a sole compliance job rather being part of a wider role. But I’ve also witnessed needless spend and it’s interesting reading the indirect cost of the report. I know of HE institutions that have spent six figure sums with solicitors for training, advice and guidance. Some that have paid for expensive external audits and others that have outsourced compliance above and beyond what the actual guidance actually states.

Over the last five years this is the most worrying part of the PBS, in that money is being spent, but it’s not going towards internal resource but externally and now, with the Premium Account Service that the Home Office Visa Immigration Service (HOVIS) are offering for £8,000, some institutions are now questioning if this is value for money. I have used the Premium Service Pilot and I would rather be investing in the Home Office and have that direct contact with them, than spending that money with a third party.

Peter Skillen

Author: Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is INTO’s UKBA Compliance Manager, joining INTO from the University of East Anglia where he held a similar position. He is the central reference point for all Home Office (UKBA) related compliance and guidance within the INTO University Partnerships group. Peter is one of the most experienced and highly regarded experts on student visas in the United Kingdom. He presents and speaks regularly at sector conferences and training events.

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