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2nd Jun 2014

UK immigration debate continues as new legislation passes into law

In the wake of the United Kingdom’s new Immigration Act 2014, questions remain about how the new legislation will impact international student enrolment and the experiences of international students studying in the UK. Student groups, representatives from the university sector, and policymakers continue to voice serious concerns about the new law. Their reactions come at a time when English universities are reporting the first decline in international student enrolment in nearly 30 years, and reflect a broader policy debate regarding international students and student visa policy in the UK that has continued in recent years. The new Immigration Act was given Royal Assent on 14 May 2014. Among the new requirements imposed by the legislation are:

  • the removal of free national health insurance (NHS) for international students;
  • the requirement that banks verify the immigration status of new clients;
  • and changes to make it easier for the Home Office to remove people from the UK.

Other regulations signed into law include the removal of the right of appeal for extension applications made in the UK, a delay in the wait time of up to 70 days before migrants are permitted to marry or enter into civil partnerships, and the indefinite retention of biometric data. After much lobbying, a late amendment was included in the bill exempting students from mandatory landlord checks on tenants’ immigration status. Changes to Britain’s immigration system were first promised by Prime Minister David Cameron in early 2010 as a way to reduce overall immigration flows to the country. The Prime Minister is holding firm on his pledge to curtail immigration levels, in part to counter the rise in popular support for the “Eurosceptic” UK Independence Party (UKIP). More recently, speaking to the Daily Mail, British Home Secretary Theresa May insisted that changes to the visa system were necessary after an undercover BBC investigation found evidence of alleged fraud among some international student visa applicants and within certain TOEIC testing centres.


The Immigration Act’s far-reaching changes have been broadly condemned by universities and student groups within the UK. Writing in The Guardian Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University, called the investigation into student fraud a “red herring” that sidesteps broader issues within British immigration policy. Mr Garton Ash argues that a robust international student system remains an important calling card for Britain in a globalised world. Apart from the significant economic impact of international student enrolment, international students play an important role in projecting British “soft power” abroad, he says. He quotes a 2013 study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that found that 84% of former international students retained links with Britain following their period of study and 90% had their perception of the country change for the better.

“Imagine if sometime Oxford students Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi and Manmohan Singh had all been thoroughly alienated by the kind of treatment that my foreign students are now routinely experiencing.”

Britain’s National Union of Students (NUS) also lobbied hard against the changes. Daniel Stevens, NUS International Students’ Officer, believes the changes will lead to international students opting for countries with more lenient regulatory regimes. The new requirements of the bill, he says, “are unworkable, expensive and ultimately being announced and callously implemented for calculated political gain. Most disappointing, the Government are again targeting international students…in a bid to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.” The UK’s share of the international student market is currently the second largest among OECD nations, after the United States. However, the British Secretary of State for BIS Vince Cable has warned that imposing a hard migration target threatens to negatively impact the recruitment of international students. A 2011 BIS report placed the total value of UK education and education exports at just over £14 billion. International students help sustain the UK's research base, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Additionally, according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) international students account for over 40% of UK postgraduate students and 50% of those doing full-time research degrees. Further declines in international enrolments may threaten growth and the competitiveness of the UK’s universities at a time when institutions are eager to secure new revenue sources and to deepen research linkages.

Is Britain’s mixed message having an impact on student perceptions?

A critical issue for many educators and administrators is the mixed message Britain’s government seems to be sending international students about the openness of the UK as a study destination. ICEF Monitor has previously reported on the mismatch between the newly implemented immigration rules and a call by BIS to grow international student numbers by 15-20% over five years. Many observers have pointed out that in the context of the new law, these targets are unrealistic, and worry that the recent decline in university enrolment will be exacerbated. In an article in The Guardian, Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chair of UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), says:

"The issue here is how we are perceived. Our competitors are, of course, very good at pointing out that Britain isn't welcoming."

Mr Smith’s concerns underline a growing fear within the education sector of possible longer-term damage to the UK’s hitherto solid image as a desirable place to study. A recent survey conducted by NUS suggests that many international students no longer view the UK as a favourable study destination. According to the report, over 50% of non-EU students surveyed think the UK government is either “not welcoming” or “not at all welcoming” towards international students. This sentiment was most pronounced among students from Turkey, Japan, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and those enrolled in PhD programmes or with dependents. The same study found that 19.4% of non-EU students “would not recommend the UK as a place to study for a friend or relative.” “I believe the government is using international students as a scapegoat when it comes to the issue of immigration,” said one undergraduate student from Malawi quoted in the survey. “Other countries have equally attractive higher education and so I feel [the UK’s new Immigration Act] may push students to seek…their higher education elsewhere.”

Policy outlook

Moving forward, some observers feel international students in the UK will continue to be squeezed between contradictory policy goals - curbing immigration and expanding student numbers. Some have been calling for international students to be acknowledged and treated as a separate category of migrant, exempt from certain regulations. Mr Garton Ash, for one, believes that “we [the British public] need to acknowledge that students are different.” In a recent article in University World News, Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the University of London, suggests that Britain needs to adopt a more “global and cosmopolitan approach to human rights and citizenship.” He proposes that the UK remove temporary entrants - such as international students - out of immigration targets. Leaving international students in the common pot labeled “migration,” he says, unnecessarily exposes them to xenophobia.

“Immigration targets should be about long-term migrants, where the implications for economic cost-benefit and cultural mix are different.”

Mr Marginson also advocates for the establishment of a global regulatory agency that can protect and advance the rights of cross-border students, working in conjunction with national jurisdictions. The real impacts arising from the new legislation will not be measured for some time. And while during the committee and final stages of the reading of the bill, speaker after speaker spoke of the value international students bring to the UK, in the end, proposed amendments to remove international students from overall immigration targets were not adopted. For many outside observers, the lack of substantive opposition that the bill faced in Parliament, particularly in the House of Commons, is alarming. Some feel that in the run up to the UK’s General Election next year, a cross-party consensus seems to be emerging that curbing immigration merely reflects the wishes of the British voting public, who in recent surveys have named immigration a close second to the economy as the most pressing issue facing the country today.

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