International update with Prof Helen Higson: March 2010

International update with Professor Helen Higson

With huge changes to the points based immigration system introduced last week (22 February), Prof Helen Higson spoke to Aspects about what these changes mean for Aston University and how the University is already ahead of the game.

At the start of February all staff received an email to bring attention to some imminent changes that were being made to the points based immigration system. These changes came in to operation on Monday. The main change is that paper visa letters will no longer be produced and this will have a huge impact on the University. Between January 2009 and January this year, the International Student Support Unit received 2,534 international enquiries through the Aston Student Advice Point (ASAP) - of these 461 were urgent visa enquiries! The Unit conducted 518 meetings with students mostly about visas, sent off 198 visa renewals and processed 617 visa extensions. The Students’ Guild Advice and Representation Centre (ARC) also received a huge number of visa enquiries. Of some 639 cases, 312 involved student visas. 

The new electronic system focuses on Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS). Here’s how it works: when a student has an unconditional firm place with Aston, admissions staff will create a record in SITS. By doing this an automatic message is sent to Registry who then produce the CAS information. These electronic records are sent to the UK Border Agency where they are assessed and a CAS number is produced for that potential student. There is absolutely no paperwork involved and it means that when a student arrives in the UK it is extremely easy to check that they are legitimately accepted by the University.

As a result of the new visa arrangements, we also have record keeping and reporting responsibilities that we need to fulfil as a University. If a student fails to enrol, has unauthorised absences or defers etc we have to inform the UK Border Agency. The new rules mean that attendance/ engagement will need to be monitored. The events could include sitting exams, research supervisor meetings, submission of coursework etc. The University has identified the key points throughout the year when Aston will have conduct its censuses. If a student doesn’t meet one of these monitoring points they will be written to and invited to meet a member of University staff for advice. If this persists, the UK Border Agency will be informed.

Organisations including universities will be able to apply to the UK Border Agency for ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status, meaning that it is acknowledged that proper processes and record keeping is being followed (recently 53 colleges lost their visa licences for not fulfilling their duties!). If Aston is awarded this status it is hoped that this will mean a simplified monitoring model for the University. Universities UK is working with the universities and the UK Border Agency to make this happen.

When I’ve been speaking to other universities about both the staff and student visa systems it looks as if Aston is already ahead of the game. This is partly due to the fact that for some time we have been going beyond what we were required to do. For example, the University checks the immigration status of all casual staff. Teamwork right across the University has been essential in order to implement the changes successfully. The Finance department is now heavily involved with the visa application process. When the initial record is produced the visa applicant needs to be able to prove that they have a certain amount of money in their bank account and that’s where the Finance department have been a huge help! This money can’t drop below a certain level and needs to remain in the applicant’s bank account for 28 days before the visa application is made.

All admissions staff have now received training and the first student visa renewal has been successfully piloted this week! 

Thank you to everyone involved in implementing these changes.

Support offered for international students.

Words by Louise Russell