According to Home Office figures, overseas students are worth £4.7 billion to the UK economy. Student visas are not only economically important – but also a subject of ongoing debate.
Under current legislation, student visa holders are entitled to work in the UK for up to ten hours a week and to bring family members with them. On average, about 300,000 overseas visitors come to the UK to study, or as family members of students, each year. In the past nine years, 1.6 million student visas have been granted by the UK – including several to terrorist suspects. In March 2011, the Home Secretary unveiled new measures intended to cut the number of foreign students and their dependants coming to Britain by about 100,000 a year.
Student Visas and the Points-Based Immigration System
Foreign student visa numbers have increased since the introduction of the UK’s points-based immigration system. There is no question that the system has been subject to some abuse. In early 2010, the UK temporarily suspended student visa applications from north India, Bangladesh and Nepal after an anomalous surge in application numbers. In 2011 officials reported that as many as 40% of Indian applications for UK student visas carried elements of fraud. For example, in February, a group of 200 applicants in New Delhi submitted documents suggesting they met all requirements for accountancy courses in the UK. When called to interview only seven could speak any English.
Tougher Requirements for UK Student Visas
Applicants for student visas will have to be able to demonstrate a higher level of proficiency in the English language than previously. Immigration officials may even refuse to let students who cannot speak English enter the UK. In the future only postgraduate students at universities and government-sponsored students will be able to bring their dependants to the UK with them. Previously there was no time limit for study at or above degree level. Going forward foreign students will only be allowed to study in the UK for three years at undergraduate level or five years at postgraduate levels.
Why Introduce Restrictions on Student Visas?
The main concern motivating the reduction in student visas is that foreign nationals enrol at dubious UK colleges (such as unaccredited language schools) on student visas and then slip into jobs without work visas. The move is also motivated by the fear that terrorists have exploited the student visa system.
The Impact of Restrictions on Student Visas
This not just a domestic issue. The UK is the world’s second largest destination for overseas MBA students. Media in other countries (such as India, a major source of graduate students) have already suggested that foreign students will now be less welcome in the UK. Competitors such as Australia and Canada have used this opportunity to promote the benefits of studying at their institutions.
One of the main changes under the new rules relates to the right of students to work in the UK after completing their course. The previous immigration rules automatically entitled graduates to a two-year post-study work visa. Under the new amendments, the automatic right to work in the UK for two years is replaced by a scheme under which foreign graduates will have to find an employer to sponsor them for a Tier 2 visa. The Tier 2 classification is for skilled workers who meet needs that cannot readily be filled by UK nationals and who will earn a minimum of £20,000 a year in the job for which they are applying.
The government has reserved the right to further amend the student visa scheme at any time. The student visa legislation, like much of the other public policy guiding the nation, appears to be in a state of flux.
Concerns About the Restrictions on Student Visas
There are concerns in the private sector, as well as academia, that restrictions on the right of top foreign graduates to work in the UK after completing their degrees might deter applicants. The technology entrepreneur and government advisor, Sir James Dyson, has warned that the new restrictions on student visas are not in the country’s best interest. He says that UK-based technology companies already have trouble finding and retaining engineering graduates. Dyson believes that the new restrictions could ultimately lead to more of these companies relocating abroad.
Critics of the new immigration policies note that the government cannot control the numbers it really wants to reduce: people from the EU and asylum seekers. They say that the two inflows the government can control – and is reducing – are just the kind of useful immigrants that businesses and universities need: highly skilled job seekers and students from outside the EU.