UK confirms elimination of work rights for non-EU students in further education

This post was originally published on 13 July 2015, at a point when the government’s new policy was not yet confirmed. It was updated on 14 July 2015 to reflect the official government statements confirming the new measures as well as the initial industry reaction.

The British government confirmed new rules this week that will eliminate the opportunity for further education (FE) students from outside the European Union to work part-time during their studies in the UK. In addition, non-EU FE students – that is, those enrolled in non-degree post-secondary programmes – will be required to leave the country at the conclusion of their studies and will only be able to apply for a work visa from outside the UK.

Home Secretary Theresa May tabled a Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules to this effect in the British House of Commons on 13 July 2015.

In an accompanying statement to the House, Minister of Immigration James Brokenshire said, “The Government is reforming the student visa system to reduce net migration and tackle abuse. These changes will help achieve this, whilst ensuring the UK maintains a highly competitive offer and continues to attract the brightest and best international students.”

Under the new policies confirmed this week:

  • As of 3 August 2015, new students from outside the European Union enrolled at public FE colleges in the UK will lose the right to work for up to 10 hours per week (and full-time between semesters).
  • As of 12 November 2015, further education students will not be permitted to apply for a work visa at the conclusion of their studies unless they first leave the country.
  • Also as of 12 November, the length of FE visas will be reduced from three years to two. And further education students will be prevented from extending their visas unless they are demonstrably progressing in their studies and unless the institution in which they are enrolled is affiliated with a university.

The changes were initially signalled by two government ministers last week, and then reported in the British media over the weekend. Although they were first understood to apply to all non-EU students in the UK, the official statements this week effectively confine the impact to those students enrolled in FE programmes.

As The Guardian reports on the estimated population of students affected, “The number of foreign students at British further education colleges has slumped in recent years from a peak of more than 110,000 in 2011 to 18,297 in the last 12 months. It is thought that there are about 5,000 non-EU students at publicly funded colleges, many of them studying for A-levels before applying to British universities.”

Government ministers attached to the file have suggested that the measures are a response to “signs of increased fraud” at some publicly funded colleges. They also suggest they have evidence of immigration advisors promoting FE college visas as a means to stay and work in the UK.

Speaking in Birmingham on 10 July, Business Secretary Sajid Javid said, “We do not want a system where some people see studying as a motive to settle in Britain and that is their only motive. People who come to study in Britain should be coming to study.”

The minister added during a BBC Radio interview the same day, “We’ve got to have a system that doesn’t allow any abuse where people are using the right to study as a way to achieve settlement in Britain. So it shouldn’t be about settlement. We’ve got to break the link and make sure it’s focused on people who want to study and then, once they’ve had their studies and completed that, then they leave.”

Industry reactions

The announcement this week is a dramatic reversal of an earlier rejection of similar proposals from the Home Secretary.

Ms May moved late last year to revive a plank from the governing Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto that would require overseas students to apply for a UK work visa from their home country after graduating. The idea was roundly criticised, perhaps most famously by British entrepreneur and inventor James Dyson who wrote in The Guardian at the time: “Train ’em up. Kick ’em out. It’s a bit shortsighted, isn’t it? … Our borders must remain open to the world’s best. Give them our knowledge, allow them to develop their own and permit them to apply it on our shores. Their ideas and inventiveness will create technology to export around the world.”

Perhaps because of such criticism, the government opted not to proceed earlier this year.

It has, however, shown its determination to tighten the immigration system in a drive to reduce net migration levels. The inclusion of international students in British net migration statistics has been hotly debated within the UK in recent years, and the strong Conservative victory in the recent national election appears to have set the stage for further immigration controls.

With the new policies for FE students announced this week, the British government is taking concrete steps to weaken the link between study and work, with the apparent goal of reducing the number of international students that remain in the country after their studies.

An earlier report in The Daily Mail quotes Minister Brokenshire who says the move is “part of [the government’s] plan to control immigration for the benefit of Britain. Immigration offenders want to sell illegal access to the UK jobs market and there are plenty of people willing to buy. Hard-working taxpayers who are helping to pay for publicly funded colleges expect them to be providing topclass education, not a back door to a British work visa.”

Echoing Mr Dyson’s earlier arguments, however, both colleges and business leaders are warning that any further restrictions on work rights for FE students could both damage the UK’s international education sector and deprive Britain of a key source of skills and innovation.

Speaking late last week (and before the government’s new policies were confirmed), Seamus Nevin, of the business leadership group the Institute of Directors, said, “The Business Secretary’s proposals to eject foreign students after graduation are misguided and would damage the British education system, our economy and global influence. Other countries welcome such students. Britain already makes it difficult and artificially expensive for them to enter and stay, and now these proposals would eject them ignominiously when their studies are finished… In the interests of our education sector, our businesses, and our international standing, the Business Secretary should reconsider this proposal.”

Industry groups have also been quick to respond to the government’s new measures.

An official release from Association of Colleges Chief Executive Martin Doel said, “Colleges have well-established and stringent attendance monitoring systems in place to mitigate against any potential abuse and the sector is keen to see any evidence that it is being used as a ‘back door for bogus students’.

Preventing international FE students continuing to study in the UK after they have finished their studies will limit the progression of students from colleges to universities. The Government risks seriously restricting the UK’s ability to attract international students. A Levels and International Foundation Year courses represent legitimate study routes for international students, with many going on to successfully complete degrees at top ranking universities. In blocking the route from further education to university, the Government will do long term harm to the UK as an international student destination and this policy needs urgent reconsideration.”

“These rules will place impossible obstacles in the path of international students and will drive them by their thousands into the open arms of our global competitors,” added Graham Able, Chair of Exporting Education UK.

“Polling has shown that the British public welcomes international students, values their positive contribution and thinks it is only fair that they have the opportunity to work here for a time after they graduate. The consistent message from employers is that they need this steady supply of skilled workers. The country as a whole benefits from the energy of these talented young people… when they leave the UK they become our greatest ambassadors.

Due to the failure of the Home Office to consult with those who understand [the UK education sector] best, these proposals are ill conceived and have not been fully thought through. If implemented in their current form, they will fatally undermine the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for international study.”

It is fair to say the policy changes introduced in the UK this week represent a sharp contrast to those in place in other major international study destinations, which, if anything, have been moving to expand post-graduate work opportunities. Particularly in that light, the sector’s concerns as to how the elimination of work rights for foreign FE students could impact the country’s international competitiveness may be well founded indeed.



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