Short on time? Here are the highlights:
- The British Home Office has reportedly been directed to prepare a set of new measures to tighten UK visa controls
- International student visa policy has been specifically targeted for further review as the British government reinforces its commitment to reduce net migration by more than two-thirds of current levels
- A recent study estimates the economic impact of declining international enrolment at US$1.5 billion to date, and projects total losses in excess of US$10.5 billion by 2016/17
Reports have been swirling in recent weeks of a further immigration crackdown in the UK. Immigration remains a hot political question in British politics. And, in the wake of the 23 June “Brexit” referendum on European Union membership, Prime Minister Theresa May has reinforced her government’s commitment to reduce net migration to the UK to 100,000 people per year, from current levels of roughly 330,000 annually.
Net migration to the UK, 2011-2015. Source: The Telegraph
Various media reports throughout July had indicated that further scrutiny of current visa policies was on the way. Prime Minister May reportedly remains committed to tighter visa controls, and to the view that the country’s higher education institutions have become a route into the UK for economic migrants.
The debate as to whether international students should even be included in net migration targets has rolled on for some time now. As recently as last December, it seemed like Ms May’s drive to curb international student numbers might have been countered by more moderate views in cabinet, including then-Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
Writing in December 2015, Nick Timothy, a close aide and advisor for Ms May, said, “The generosity of our student visa rules alone make the net migration target almost impossible to achieve…It is well known that the Home Office would like to reform the student visa system further, reduce the number of work permits issued to foreign workers, change the way the asylum system works, and win greater control of immigration from other EU countries. But many of these changes have been blocked already or will be blocked by other government departments.”
The Brexit vote in June, however, saw Mr Cameron’s departure, Ms May’s elevation to Prime Minister, and the subsequent dismissal of Mr Osborne. Further, the responsibility for universities has since moved under a revamped Department of Education, under a new Minister, and staunch May ally, Justine Greening.
Review now underway
The speculation around further visa changes came to a head in late-August when government sources confirmed that the Prime Minister has directed Home Secretary Amber Rudd to prepare a set of new measures to tighten controls across all visa classes. The Home Office has claimed in the past that as many as one in five foreign students overstays their visas currently, and continues to live in Britain after the conclusion of their studies.
Early speculation has it that among the options under consideration with respect to student visas are:
- constraints on how universities may market post-study work options in the UK;
- new measures to ensure that students do not overstay their visas and return to their home countries at the end of their studies; and
- tighter controls for students applying to attend lower-ranking institutions.
The actual scope and decisions arising from the review remain to be seen. The debate around international student mobility in the UK, however, is likely to continue beyond the frame of the current process. Mostafa Rajaai, international officer for the National Union of Students, said in a recent interview with The Independent: “Thanks to Theresa May’s approach to international students while she was in charge of the Home Office, we have witnessed, for the first time in 30 years, a drop in the number of international students coming to the UK. This is while the number of internationally mobile students has been rising year on year…As it stands, the British student visa regime is one of the toughest and least welcoming in the world. By tightening it further, the Higher Education sector will lose out on hundreds of thousands of international students choosing other countries over the UK.”
“International students clearly shouldn’t be part of the conversation about migration. They benefit our universities and economy, and they don’t generally hang about if they can’t find gainful employment afterwards,” adds Study Group’s Managing Director for UK and Europe, James Pitman.
Writing recently in The Guardian, he said, “The visa system should be rigorous, but not punishing, and must be guided by best practice elsewhere. Students should be free to undertake work alongside their studies and given time to fill valuable roles in industry after graduation…Above all, both EU and international students should be treated as any other contributors to our expansive, multicultural society. With the institutions and resources we have, we should be leading this market, not lagging behind.”
A June 2016 study from Parthenon-EY further expands the debate by trying to put a price tag on the UK’s declining market share in recent years, a decline that can largely be traced to the tightening of visa controls and other more restrictive policies introduced over the last five years.
The relationship between international enrolment in the UK and recent policy changes. Source: Parthenon-EY
“The decline in the UK’s market share and its failure to maintain growth at or above the global rate has generated a considerable loss in local revenue and jobs,” conclude the study’s authors. “Whilst the sector has cumulatively lost £1.1 billion so far (US$1.5 billion) from the decline in student numbers, it is estimated that the cumulative opportunity cost will rise to almost £8 billion by 2016/17 (US$10.6 billion).”
The report calls for improved data and analysis on international student enrolment in the UK, and on the progression of students among various levels of study. It argues as well for a more sophisticated student visa system that enables smooth transitions for students within the British education system and incorporates a strengthened risk assessment regime for institutional sponsors.
For additional background on recent enrolment trends in the UK, please see: