Anxious international students turn away from UK
Students from the rest of the world have been flocking to UK universities for decades, eager to get the most out of doing a degree here. In 2014-15 alone, some 437,000 students came to the UK from other countries to study. But this number is shrinking.
To the dismay of universities, there have been recent reports that the government is considering cutting international student numbers by nearly half in an effort to meet the immigration targets set by prime minister Theresa May.
Foreign students from within the European Union are concerned that the UK’s Brexit decision will leave them stranded. But students from outside the EU have already begun to turn away from the UK and consider more welcoming countries with renowned universities, such as the US and Australia.
And that’s because of strict visa rules introduced when May was home secretary.
Until 2011, the number of students coming to the UK had been growing by 3-4% annually, but the rate has pretty much stagnated in recent years. This is down to changes introduced in 2012 that tightened the rules on foreign students staying on once they had completed their degrees.
Before the changes, a post-study work scheme allowed non-EU students who graduated in the UK to stay on and work for two years. Since then, there’s been a big drop in the number of people moving from study visas to work visas.
Amreet Shah (not his real name) moved to the UK from India to study a masters in ICT at the University of Manchester. He came over on a dependent visa, as his wife was on a four-year PhD programme in the UK.
Shah says Britain offers the best opportunities for his subject. “Outside of the UK, India and the US are possible places for my line of work. But in the UK, opportunities are more concentrated and there are more university programmes within my research interest.”
Though India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has urged May to open up British universities to more of the country’s students and liberalise the visa system, students such as Shah are now facing strict conditions.
“Since coming to the UK to study, the rules have changed. At the time when I got this visa, dependants of students could get their own visa sponsorship once they landed a job,” he says. “But the rules were changed after I moved, and it has unfair consequences on my future prospects.”
Dominic Scott, chief executive of UK Council for International Student Affairs, thinks the changes are counterproductive and damaging. He points to research showing that the public does not see students as “immigrants”.
“If everybody accepts that students aren’t migrants… that they come here to learn not to earn, and that they are subject to particular rules, it seems absolutely bonkers that somebody is trying to reduce the number,” he says.
How easy is it for international students to work in the UK?
These criteria are hard to meet. For starters, the graduate salary needs to be a minimum of £20,800, which for a first job is pretty difficult, especially outside of London.
“We had a student with an MSc in marketing who was offered a job with a top firm as a marketing assistant. But that is not a graduate job – you’ve got to be a marketing manager,” explains Scott. “And you can’t just work for a little tech company down in Hackney.”
Currently, non-EU students can work part time for 20 hours a week and full time in vacations. If they go to a private college, they’re not allowed to work at all. This was one of the measures introduced last year in a Home Office “crackdown on visa fraud”, targeting students at “bogus” private colleges.
What about EU students?
At the moment, EU students have the right to work in the UK. Students must apply for a national insurance number, although they don’t need this to arrive before they start work. However, these rules are likely to change when the UK leaves the EU. The worst-case scenario is that they will face the same rules as other international students.
It’s unlikely there will be changes any time soon though. Last month the government offered reassurance to EU students in relation to their fees. It confirmed that those applying to study at English universities from autumn 2017 will continue to pay the same fees as domestic undergraduates and will remain eligible for the same loans and grants, despite the vote to leave the EU.
But do students feel welcome working in the UK?
In October, the home secretary Amber Rudd prompted criticism when she proposed that businesses should disclose how many foreign workers they employ. The government has since rowed back from the suggestions, but universities fear that this kind of rhetoric will put many young people off wanting to come to the UK.
Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of University of the Arts London, is especially worried about EU students’ perceptions of the UK. “Art and design students come to Britain because they think our creative industries and universities are the most influential, open and connected in the world.
Kent Roach, careers and employability consultant at Sheffield Hallam University, says: “The students from countries overseas that I speak to are very, very aware of the social and cultural impact of Brexit and conscious of how the debate is being framed. People’s perceptions of the overall social, cultural and economic environment here is going to shape their experience and could well in the future put people off wanting to study and remain in the UK.”
Students like Shah are now having to reconsider their future plans. Although he is currently doing a PhD part time and working full time, he is stuck on a dependent visa and will not be able to continue working in the UK after his wife’s study comes to an end, unless he secures sponsorship.
“If I had known this, I would have remained in the lucrative job I had in India or at least applied to EU universities where settlement is a possibility,” he says. “By 2017, we will have been in the UK for five years, but it does not get counted for settlement. Unless you come to the UK as a single student and hitch up during your time here, the Home Office just counts you as immigrants.”
Shah now fears that he might have to give up on an academic career. “If it is not possible to remain in research, I will have to go back to data analytics,” he says.