It is often noted by the academic lobby that there has been a fall since 2010 in the number of prospective Indian students applying for a visa to study at a UK university. For example, Conservative peer Lord Bilimoria wrote in the Daily Telegraph in August 2017: “The number of Indian students studying in the UK is currently barely half the number who studied in the UK in 2010.”
However, Lord Bilimoria omits to mention the fact that the year 2010 was also the high watermark of abuse of the UK’s student immigration system following the implementation, from March 2009, of Tier 4 of the then-Labour government’s new Points-Based System (PBS). The abolition of interviews of student visa applicants helped lead to the number of Tier 4 visa applications from India more than doubling from 22,000 in late 2008 to 54,000 during the same period in 2009. A major part of this surge occurred amongst prospective enrollees on English language courses and on courses at newly established private colleges, many of which were later established to be bogus. Suspicions of abuse of the Tier 4 route were borne out when a 2012 National Audit Office report found that, between March 2009 and February 2010, 40,000-50,000 individuals may have entered the UK to work rather than study. In February 2010, the Agency took action and stopped accepting new Tier 4 applications from North India, Nepal and Bangladesh. These suspensions were not fully lifted until August 2010.
The change of government led to a review of the entire student route. In preparing the ground for reforms, the Coalition ran a pilot-study to assess the usefulness of interviews as part of the visa application process. One criteria was an assessment of the student’s intention to leave the UK at the end of their course. It was concluded that nearly 60% of Indian interviewees could potentially have been refused a visa on credibility grounds. India had a higher rate of potential refusals on credibility grounds than the weighted average.
There was also found to be maladministration of the student visa route by a few UK universities. In February 2012, Teesside University was denied the right to recruit international students for about a month as a result of ‘administrative issues’ in recruitment processes. In April 2011, Glasgow Caledonian University had its ability to sponsor applicants temporarily suspended when 150 nursing students were found to have been working almost full-time. London Metropolitan University’s sponsorship licence was revoked for a period of months from August 2012 after the UKBA found that more than a quarter of sampled students had no valid visa to be in the UK. Following an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama in February 2014, the government found that more than 50,000 English language tests taken by overseas students to extend their visas have been declared invalid or questionable. Most of the Tier 4 visa-holders affected were reportedly Indian. This led to three universities having their ability to recruit international students suspended for a period of time. Justification for such tough action appeared to be strengthened by UKBA study which found that 14% of visa applications to study at UK universities could have been denied on credibility grounds.
There was therefore a strong case for reforms. The government announced that, from April 2013, around 100,000 student applicants would face interviews as part of the application process (along lines similar to proposals made by Migration Watch UK). Meanwhile, sponsoring institutions were required to be accredited by an appropriate educational body and to attain Highly Trusted Sponsor Status. The employment rights of some students were restricted, as was the right to bring in dependants. English language competence requirements were increased, while universities were given discretion to assess language competence. From 2010 onwards, more than 900 bogus colleges were shut down.
It was therefore unsurprising therefore that reforms aimed at tackling abuse led to a fall in the number of applications by those domiciled in India in the non-university sector where abuse had been most widespread. Indeed, they fell from 20,000 in 2010 to just under 1,000 in 2016. The number of university applications by Indian-domiciled students also fell from 20,000 in 2010 to just under 11,000 in 2016.
However, as the government has recently pointed out, these changes have also meant that the proportion of Indian students coming to study in the UK at a higher education institution increased from around 50% in 2010 to around 93% in the year ending June 2017. At the same time, new data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals that the number of Indian-domiciled undergraduates enrolled at the UK’s top ten universities rose by 50% between 2010/11 and 2015/16, while the number of Indian-domiciled undergraduates at ten institutions near the bottom of the 2018 UCAS rankings fell by 60% over the same period (see tables 1 and 2 below).
Tables 1 and 2: Indian-domiciled undergraduates at higher (left) and lower (right) ranked universities, UCAS 2018: Higher Education Statistics Agency figures.
 Daily Telegraph, August 2017, URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/08/16/world-leaders-could-turn-backs-uk-close-universities-international/
 Parliamentary answer, April 2010, see Column 1266W, URL: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmhansrd/cm100406/text/100406w0028.htm#10040638002742
 National Audit Office report 2012, https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/10121827.pdf
 Tier 4 student credibility pilot, July 2012, URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/115920/occ104.pdf
 Daily Telegraph, July 2012, URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/9416973/Ban-on-university-recruiting-foreign-students.html
 Times Higher Education Supplement, May 2012, URL: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/ukba-restores-teessides-highly-trusted-status/419816.article
 Daily Mail comment, August 2012, URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2196055/London-Metropolitan-University-crisis-Visas-sham-courses-bogus-students.html
 Home Office document, 2014, URL: http://www.ukcisa.org.uk/file_download.aspx?id=16983; The PIE News, https://thepienews.com/news/uk-buckinghamshire-new-universitys-tier-4-licence-suspended/
 Home Secretary speech, December 2012, URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretary-speech-on-an-immigration-system-that-works-in-the-national-interest
 Hansard, 10th October 2017, URL: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2017-10-10/debates/A3A924B8-C457-44C1-83B2-43030A5ADBA7/ImmigrationInternationalStudents