The British government recently tightened up visa regulations for international students. Australia is backing and forthing in an attempt to define appropriate visa regulations. More stringent scrutiny of applicants for student visas inevitably risks a decline in the number of incoming international students. The British Home Office predicts that the measures will result in 52,000 fewer visas/year being issued to international students—a net reduction of 260,000 during the next five years.
The British action comes in an effort to crack down on bogus colleges and non students, according to Home Minister Theresa May. An additional issue is a broader rethinking of immigration policy and a feeling in the government that there has been too much immigration and that current levels are unsustainable. Australia’s sharp break with the recent past reflects similar thinking. Stimulated in part by violence aimed at “students” from India in Australia, and by a significant policy shift by the new Labour prime minister, immigration rules have been tightened and the government no longer feels that very permissive immigration policies are in the long-term interest of the country. Australia’s very aggressive international student recruiting policy has at least slowed.
Some in the higher education community complain that a decline in numbers will result in a reduction in much-needed revenues, and will create a sense that Australia and the UK are no longer welcoming—this might contribute to further declines. Overall, however, tightening up is a very good thing. It will help stop what by now has become a minor industry of visa fraud—“students” are sent to “study” in unaccredited or even non-existent “universities” under the noses of immigration authorities. Higher education internationalization risks losing public support because of growing fraud. Semi-legitimate for-profit “schools” accept “students,” many of whom disappear into the labor force.
It is well-known that many students coming to Japan from China are more interested in working in McDonalds than in studying in the low-prestige Japanese colleges that accept them. Recent scandals in the United States also highlight the problem. Tri Valley University, an unaccredited institution in California, has been closed down by US Government authorities, had a pipeline of “students,” mainly from India, who got visas from lax US immigration oversight, and ended working in minimum-wage jobs. It is not clear if the students were duped or were part and parcel of an immigration scam. More recently, the University of Northern Virginia, another unaccredited for-profit with 90 percent of its students coming from India, was raided by US immigration authorities. Rockfield College in the UK falsely claimed an affiliation with the University of London and was not even able to document the number of classes it offered to students.
These examples are the tip of an iceberg of fraud, deception, and shady practices that involve some unscrupulous agents and recruiters abroad—India and China are particularly vulnerable—and some low-end educational institutions—some of which actually exist while others are simply conduits for illegal immigration. It is well worth a modest decline in international student numbers to restore standards and ensure that internationalization is not simply another word for fraud.
Government shares some of the blame for lax enforcement, and in the Australian case, for over commercializing international higher education. It is certainly time to rethink both the policies and practices of internationalization, or at the very least, mechanisms for adequate oversight.