UK immigration- Change system instead of penalising international students

January 04, 2024
“Immigration is too high. Today we’re taking radical action to bring it down,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted on December 4, which sent a wave of concern among groups of Indian students who are already in the UK or aspire to go in the next few years. Canada and Australia had also tightened their immigration policies, including on student visas, and Britain was not a country Indians could expect to hear the word, especially at a time when the government was headed by someone with Indian heritage. According to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)'s 2018 report, more than 750,000 students come to the UK each year to study at higher education, further education, independent schools and language schools. Some take short-term English courses, while others are aimed at graduate students at the forefront of scientific research. Since this report, the number of student visas issued has increased significantly. According to MAC's latest report, the total number of visas issued in 2019 was 404,400, rising to 623,700 in 2022. If we look at India-related data specifically, a total of 1,42,848 student visas were granted by the United Kingdom to Indian nationals in June 2023. It registered an increase of 54 per cent (49,883 more visas granted) than June 2022. Indian students made up one-third of the total sponsored study grants to main applicants, the highest amongst all nationalities, an official report released by the Home Office, Government of UK stated. Currently, the British Indian population is the single largest visible ethnic minority population in the country – exceeding 1.8 million people in the UK. Even then, Indian students are now worried about heading to the UK. Why?

No to dependency

Rishi Sunak has announced a ban on overseas students bringing their families to the UK, unless they are on postgraduate research degrees. Additionally, international students will also no longer be allowed to switch from the student visa to work routes until their studies have been completed. These changes came into effect in January 2024. Growth in international students at the undergraduate level has been around 10 per cent annually. As per data provided by the UK Home Office Management Information 2022, there were a total of 139,700 Indian students (30 per cent of the total) entering higher education in the UK in 2022-23. The majority of growth since 2019-20 has been in postgraduate study, which accounted for 74 per cent of all international students in 2022-23 compared to 65 per cent in 2019-20. The data has also shown that international students, especially Indians, prefer the one-year Master’s degree, especially since it used to give them the option of bringing their family or spouse with them to the UK. The Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, Lord Karan Bilimoria, also believes that due to this tweak in the rule, the UK is “going to lose out on many high-quality masters students. So for example, the Dean of the London Business School wrote to me because I’m president of the UK Council of International Student Affairs. I’m also the co-chair of the old party parliamentary group on international students. And as an alumnus of the London Business School, he wrote a letter with the fact saying, do you realize it’s a huge proportion of our students who bring over dependents — and this is one of the top business schools in the world – And if they cannot bring dependents, we will lose the students,” he said. Lord Bilimoria also shared another example from Cambridge Judge Business School where he asked one-year MBA students – 1/3rd of whom were international students – if they would still choose the UK even if they were not able to bring dependents, and “all of them raised their hands on they would not come to the UK by leaving their children or families behind,” he said. The total number of dependants coming to the UK under student visas has increased significantly, and at a much faster pace than the rise in total student numbers, the MAC report states. The increase in student dependant visas has largely been driven by applicants from two countries: India and Nigeria. In 2015, these two countries accounted for only 11 per cent of dependants, but by 2022, they accounted for 73 per cent of dependants. In 2022, 23 per cent of student visas for Indian nationals were for dependants. However, now with this change, Indian students fear they will feel unwelcome in the UK, especially in Master’s programmes. “The recent changes in UK visa regulations have prompted me to carefully consider potential impacts on my academic and professional journey. The heightened measures raise concerns about securing employment opportunities post-graduation and the overall feasibility of pursuing a career in the UK. Additionally, the stringent visa processes and immigration policies will influence my decision to pursue higher education in the UK,” said a Mumbai student who is enrolled at the University of Edinburgh for LLM Corporate Law course. “I am now prompted to look at neighbouring countries to undertake my PhD. These measures not only influence my immediate decisions about studying abroad but also shape my long-term strategies for establishing a career in the evolving landscape of the UK job market,” the student added. Experts also believe that students not being able to bring their family with them can negatively affect the mental health of the Master’s degree students. “For some, it may lead to increased financial burden as they would need to find alternative childcare arrangements or pay for their dependents to return to India, which could put a strain on their finances. It could also lead to emotional isolation as those students who are not able to bring their families with them may feel lonely and isolated, which could negatively impact their mental health and well-being,” said Mayank Maheswari, COO of University Living, a global student housing platform.

Undoing the done – review of graduate visa

A few years ago, the Boris Johnson government had announced the reinstatement of a two-year post-study work (PSW) visa in the UK, which reversed Theresa May’s (then UK Home Secretary) revocation of work visas on the grounds that it was too generous, more than seven years ago. According to the new rule, international students enrolled for undergraduate level and higher are allowed to stay back for two years in the UK after graduation to work or find work. There is no requirement on the graduate route to work, nor any restriction on the type of work that can be done if they choose to do so. However, migrants cannot claim benefits, and time on the graduate visa does not count toward settlement. Dependants are also eligible, provided they join on the student visa they can apply to stay on the graduate visa. So far, 176,000 students have been accepted through the graduate route, with a further 37,000 dependants. Of these, 42 per cent were Indian nationals. However, a review of this graduate visa has now been ordered by experts which is influenced by evidence at the time showing that the earnings of some graduates who remained in the UK after graduation were surprisingly low, especially for some Master’s students, suggesting that those who would benefit most from a longer period to find a job would not be the most highly skilled. As the government is hoping to bring in only the ‘genuine’ students, experts are reminding the government the importance of distinguishing between the abuse of system and the victims of legal loopholes. “We all want to ensure that the Graduate route is delivering for students, for universities, and for the UK. It is in no one’s interests for immigration routes to be open to potential abuse or misuse,” said a spokesperson of the Universities UK International (UUKi), an advocacy organisation for universities in the UK. “However, it is important to distinguish between abuse of the system, and consequences of entirely legal uses of the system. The UK is a leading destination for international students – reflecting the strength and reputation of our universities, and the world-leading teaching and research that they facilitate. It is vital that the UK remains an open and welcoming destination for international students, and that their contribution is recognised and valued.” Some Indian students such as Aabhas, who is pursuing LLM in Commercial Law and International Trade, and Rohan, who is pursuing MSc Management, are not bothered about a possible change since they are already in the UK and are eligible for the two-year PSW visa. However, there are a few Indian students who are scared by a possible reduction in the PSW. “All international students aspire to work abroad at least for a few years to gain exposure and experience. This announcement could indirectly affect those plans, as many do anticipate some changes to the PSW as well,” said Natasha Kambli, who is headed to the University College Birmingham in January 2024.


While the MAC report states that recently there have been concerns reported in the media suggesting that international student migration to the UK may be “crowding out” UK students from accessing higher education and impacting the housing market, local experts believe that this is not true. “The locals are not suffering. We have also got an aging population. If you look at the demographic of the UK, we are going to need more immigration in the future. With our aging population, there will be increasing labour shortages looking ahead. And no one is saying you’ve got to have open borders, but you’ve got to have immigration that the country needs. We have 15 per cent of the UK population made up of immigrants. They have contributed a huge amount to the culture and economy of the UK. We will not be the sixth largest economy in the world without the contribution of the immigrants over the decades,” said Lord Bilimoria, who is the first Indian-born Chancellor of a Russell Group university. As a solution to this, he suggests that the UK government needs to “remove international students from the net migration figures because this has a damaging effect and inflates the figures unnecessarily. Other countries such as the United States of America and Australia exclude international students from the net migration because then they treat them as temporary migrants, which is what they are and that is what the UK should be doing because the damaging effect is multi-fold when you include the international students. First, it makes the figure very high which also creates this fear of very high migration among locals. Second, because the figures are perceived to be too high, it prevents the government from activating the shortage occupation list… So the economy suffers as a result of it as well. Then the third thing is it sends a negative impression to international students that the UK is not a welcome place for them,” he explained.

What and where do international students study?

At both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, international students are more likely to study business and management, computing, engineering and technology and mathematical sciences compared to UK students, and are less likely to study social sciences, psychology, biological and sport sciences and medicine, as per the MAC report. Additionally, as per the report, since 2020 there has been a notable increase in the proportion of international students attending non-Russell Group universities. This divergence from previous trends has almost exclusively been seen in postgraduate study and predominantly in one-year Master’s programmes. Source: IndianExpress

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