Yesterday saw the publication of a review of the impact on higher education institutions of complying with the points based immigration system for students. The report makes ten recommendations and has been forwarded the UK Border Agency, Universities UK and Guild HE for their response. Although most of the recommendations relate to policy, procedure and advice, there are a number relating to the underlying IT systems and data.
The interviews carried out in forming the report, together with discussions on various forums have identified a number of operating difficulties but also potential solutions to alleviate them. However, UKBA were only resourced for the implementation of the Sponsor Management System (SMS) which underpins operation of the points based immigration system; there was no commitment to its ongoing development. Consequently there has not been a mechanism to collect and prioritise enhancements which means that opportunities to refine processes, to become more efficient and so deliver savings are perhaps being missed. The recommendation to reinstate the future enhancements register and to establish a mechanism to monitor it is welcomed. It is hoped that, if the recommendation is accepted, a permanent test environment will be resourced to facilitate testing by student records systems suppliers.
Following the launch of the system there has continued to be changes made to criteria and rules, often with short lead times. Whilst these have not (as yet) had any impact on systems requirements, if changes did require changes to the data transfer files, it is unlikely that student records systems suppliers would be able to develop and test any required changes before the change was scheduled to come into effect (even if they had a system to test against). It is desirable that changes are scheduled where possible and known well in advance. The recommendation of an agreed annual calendar for the timing of changes makes sense and will hopefully allow suppliers to schedule developments. However, given that change will generally be driven by the needs of Parliament and political imperative, it is likely that there will still be changes outside any agreed schedule.
Finally, the SMS contains a significant amount of data on the preferences and behaviour of potential international students considering studying in the UK. UKBA have no real interest in this data and so there was no mechanism specified to allow reporting on the data within the SMS or to allow wholesale extraction of the data to allow analysis by third parties. The potential use of the data, which could inform the ongoing development of the international reputation of HE in the UK, has been recognised through the recommendation that the feasibility of extracting data from the SMS for subsequent analysis on behalf of HEIs should be examined.
It is hoped that the responses from the various parties allow these recommendations to be taken forward. HEIs have incurred and continue to incur significant costs in order to comply with the points based system. In these financially constrained times, it is imperative that both UKBA and the HEIs are able to operate efficiently and that opportunities to ease the burden of compliance are taken.