It’s a tough time for international students in the UK, and their plight has only been made worse by home secretary Theresa May’s recent announcement of changes to the immigration rules.
In a recent confidential letter, May wrote that universities should “develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students”. And business secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this month that he wants to “break the link” between studying and settling to work in the UK.
Since it came to power, the government has tried to make it more difficult for international students to stay in the UK after completing their studies, as part of its failed plan to cut net immigration to below 100,000 per year and reduce visa fraud.
The most significant step in this direction was the scrapping of the post-study work visa in 2012. This had allowed non-EU students to stay in the UK and work for up to two years after graduation.
International students have also been hit by an NHS charge for hospital treatment this year, on top of paying extortionate university tuition fees – up to four times as much as UK students on some courses – which can rise without notice.
Despite media reports implying that all international students will now be kicked out as soon as their courses ends because of a new rule, this isn’t the case. This new rule only applies to students in further education colleges, not universities.
In fact, the latest rules differ in several ways depending on whether you are studying at a university or a further education college.
Changes affecting international students at UK universities
Students will need evidence of significantly more savings on arrival. The amount of money they need to have access to will increase from November. This will apply to international students extending their time here, as well as those coming for the first time, and will be higher for students in London. The area considered as London is also being expanded so a great number of students will be affected. International students currently need to show they have enough money for course fees and living costs for either two months – if they have an “established presence” – or nine months. But the established presence provision is being removed, so all students will need to show they can support themselves for up to nine months or the full length of their course, whichever is shorter. A PhD student, for instance, in London and needing to extend for nine months will have to show they have £11,385 in the bank rather than the current £2040.
Stricter rules around academic progression. From 3 August, students wanting to extend their general visas must be moving up a level on the National Qualifications Framework. Those hoping to extend their studies at the same level will only be able to if their proposed course is linked to their previous one, or if it supports their career aspirations, as determined by their university. So, for example, you won’t be able to do a BA in English if you already have one in sociology. Applicants for PhD or doctoral qualifications can continue at the same level.
The minimum salary requirement for tier 2 visas is likely to increase. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee is reviewing tier 2 visas – the most common route by which international students stay and work in the UK – in a bid to reduce the number of non-EEA migrants working in the UK. To be able to stay and work with a tier 2 (general) visa after their studies, an international graduate’s employer must currently pay at least £20,800 and sponsor a work visa, but this minimum salary requirement looks set to rise. A small number of international students may be able to stay and work in the UK by other means, such as a tier 1 (graduate entrepreneur) visa, a tier 5 (temporary worker) visa, a tier 1 (entrepreneur) visa or a tier 1 (investor). Information about these can be found here.
Spouses’ and dependants’ rights to work in the UK may be restricted. Most international students below master’s level are already banned from bringing dependants. But international postgraduates can currently bring spouses and other dependants if their course lasts a year or more, as well as students who are fully sponsored by their government for a course longer than six months. However, May has circulated proposals to ban dependants from being employed in low-skilled jobs, according to The Times. This change could disproportionately affect science and technology departments, as around 47% of students on postgrad Stem courses are international students.
Changes for international students at further education colleges
Students will no longer be able to extend their visa or switch to a work visa while in the UK. From November, tier 4 (general) students at colleges will have to apply from outside the UK, creating a barrier to further study or employment.
They won’t be able to extend their studies in the UK unless they are registered at an institution with a formal link to a university. This comes into force on 12 November and could limit students’ progression from colleges to universities.
Those at publicly funded FE colleges will be banned from working part-time. They can currently work for up to 10 hours per week and for an unlimited time outside term time. The new rule will apply to students who apply for their tier 4 visa on or after 3 August, but won’t apply retrospectively to students already here. International students at private colleges lost this right in 2011.
Study visas at FE level will be cut from three years to two. The government says the change, which comes into force on 12 November, will help ensure academic progression. But some FE courses can run for more than two years, and this change could reduce the number of qualifications students are able to gain while in the UK.
International students have some powerful supporters
Within the government, chancellor George Osborne is more welcoming of international students than May. In January he blocked her plan to expel foreign students upon graduation, allegedly warning it would damage the economy.
As deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg was also against May’s plan when it was first floated last year. He called for international students to be removed from immigration targets and urged the government to adopt a flexible approach to student visas – a viewpoint notably absent from this Conservative government.
Business leaders such as Sir James Dyson have spoken out against May’s stance on foreign graduates. Dyson says it is difficult enough getting skilled young engineers through the visa system already, without further tightening of the immigration rules.
Universities have condemned the rule changes. Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, highlights the contradiction between the government’s long-term plan for economic growth and its tough stance on immigration. Professor Paul Webley, director of Soas university, has also criticised the plans, saying: “International students bring money and – if they stay – talent to the UK that the country would not otherwise attract.”