Alex Bols, Deputy CEO, GuildHE has written a blog for The Pie (Professionals in International Education) about concerns that strict Home Office regulations – including the cap on the number of visa refusals institutions are permitted to keep operating – may be disproportionately harming smaller institutions. What can be done to remedy the situation?

The full blog post is below:


The UK has a world-class higher education system, the strength of which is – at least in part – the result of the huge diversity of universities, of all sizes and specialisms.

Many students deliberately choose to study in a smaller or more specialist institution because of the world-class facilities as well as the safer and more personalised experience that they will receive and these opportunities should be available to the many international students wanting to study in the UK.

However, we are beginning to see the impact of Home Office reforms, and in particular the reduction of the visa refusal threshold as part of the Tier 4 licence process, on these institutions with smaller numbers of international students.

No limit on genuine students

The Government has been keen to emphasise the fact that there is no limit on the number of genuine students applying to the UK. There has, however, been political pressures to reduce the number of migrants coming to the UK.

Against a backdrop of national political concern about immigration it is understandable that the Home Office have sought to tighten controls for international students entering the UK as a way of tackling some of the abuses under the previous systems. This has included reducing the threshold for the number of visa refusals an institution can have before losing its Tier 4 licence.

Impact on institutions with small numbers of international students

There is, however, a concern that the changes are beginning to have a real impact on a number of institutions with smaller numbers of international students. An institution will automatically have its Tier 4 status suspended if it goes above the 10% visa refusal threshold. Several institutions have fallen foul to this, and in the last few weeks GSM London has also been caught up.

The key challenge for institutions with small numbers of international students is that it only takes a couple of students having their visas refused to push them above the 10% refusal threshold, in one institution’s case they were 1% over the threshold – equivalent to three student visa refusals – and in the case of GSM London it was just five students.

For those with the very smallest numbers of international students (as measured by their CAS – Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies – allocation) the Home Office is able to use its discretion, but this only applies to those institutions issuing fewer than 50 CASs a year. This is clearly a welcome safeguard, and has already been used with several institutions, but it does raise a number of questions.

Firstly, by having a specific threshold for discretionary decisions it creates a sharp cliff-edge whereby some institutions can be above in some years and below in others, as well anomalies such as an institution below the threshold having more refusals than one above but still potentially retaining its licence.

Not all refusals are the university’s fault

Secondly, universities take particular care to ensure that they offer CASs to genuine students and often check their forms in addition to the checks that the student and agent may undertake. It should, however, be recognised that not all visa refusals are the fault of the university.

Visas can be refused for any number of reasons. I’ve heard of examples of visas being refused because the student fills in the form incorrectly; a student being refused because their passport was too “tatty”; or indeed currency fluctuations meaning that a student may have had enough money in their bank account when they applied but not when the application is assessed. There have also been concerns about some of the more arbitrary decisions that can come to light during the in-country credibility interviews where a student is refused for not knowing all their module choices for the full three years(!) or being perceived as not having good enough language skills (despite having the requisite IELTS score).


The political imperative to tighten the numbers of immigrants entering the country must be balanced against the need for a fair system for all institutions. The potential impact for institutions can be so significant that it is important to get it right for all types of institutions, even those with the smallest numbers of international students. We would not want to unintentionally exclude smaller and more specialist institutions from recruiting international students just because of the risks.

There are many ways of building in a bit of extra flexibility for those institutions with the fewest CASs to help mitigate the risks to both institutions and the Home Office. This could include raising the visa refusal discretionary threshold to, say, 100 CASs which would therefore require a slightly larger numbers of visa failures and so take out some of the risk, this would also chime with the BIS Green Paper proposal to increase the Student-Number Control threshold to institutions with 100 rather than the current 50 students. Alternatively there could be greater discretionary powers for the Home Office on a sliding scale above 50 CASs and so removing the current cliff-edge.

A system that allowed a further element of flexibility for those with the fewest CASs would be both fairer and enable us to meet the Prime Minister’s vision of there being no limit on genuine students being able apply to study in the UK.

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