The two-year pilot program, launched on July 25, is only applicable to those applying for Master’s courses at University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University of Bath, and Imperial College London.
The program is said to make it easier for students offered places at these universities to apply for a visa, reported Times Higher Education (THE).
The participating universities will be responsible for conducting eligibility checks, and students are allowed to submit a reduced number of supporting documents for their visa applications on aspects such as previous academic qualifications.
The Home Office has released new guidelines regarding the new pilot scheme.
According to the document, students taking part in the pilot can stay in the UK for an additional six months after completing their studies, allowing them more time to secure a job via the Tier 2 skilled worker visa route.
Universities and students alike have long pushed for the reintroduction of post-study work visas, which was scrapped in 2012, but the government has instead leaned towards stricter measures in a bid to reduce immigration to the UK.
In a government circular sent to vice-chancellors, the four universities “were selected due to their consistently low level of visa refusals. The pilot is intentionally narrow in scope in order to monitor the pilot outcomes against the stated objectives and to minimise the risk of unintended consequences before considering rolling it out more widely.”
The pilot’s aim is to “test the benefits of a differentiated approach within Tier 4, whilst ensuring that any changes do not undermine the robust application of immigration requirements”.
Throughout its duration, the pilot will be kept “under close review” by the Home Office, which will conduct a formal evaluation of the scheme once it is concluded.
"The results of the ongoing monitoring and evaluation will inform any decision to roll the pilot out more widely,” said the circular.
The announcement, however, is said to have raised some eyebrows among those in higher education circles, especially those who believe that should the pilot prove successful, it may lead to a "two-tier" visa system.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities, told THE: “This pilot formalises a differentiated approach to universities that will concern many vice-chancellors and principals and should concern the Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
“A two-tier system based on the cohorts that these four institutions recruit in no way reflects the wider international market in which universities throughout the UK engage.”
Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman also echoed Tatlow’s concern, adding: “We still have a single national UK-wide higher education system. But it is stretching at the seams and any attempts to pick off a few universities or a few subjects and to treat them differently risks ripping that apart.
“In the end, the whole country will lose because it is equivalent to telling the rest of the world we value some things more than others.”
Regarding the pilot project, a Home Office spokeswoman said: “We welcome people who want to come to the UK to study at our world-leading institutions and this carefully targeted pilot scheme will help to ensure they remain highly competitive and continue to attract the brightest and the best students from around the world.”
She clarified that participating students would still need to meet all Home Office immigration rules, including being subject to the appropriate identity and security checks.
“Applications that do not meet the Immigration Rules will be refused,” she added.