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Reversing international students' Visa limitations

Image credit: Tom Page

With the UK 2024 general election resulting in a resounding Labour victory, discourses surrounding the new government’s first 100 days have so far have centred upon popular campaign points such as strengthening the economy, taxation and migration. Migration and immigration have always been popular topics which governments seek to address.



However, amongst the sweeping statements of a new government, it is important to contextualise the messages broadcast not only against the previous statements and actions of the departing government, but in relation to the current and very real concerns of international academics in the UK. Labour’s 2024 migration policy appears to echo the previous Conservative government’s stance on the graduate visa route. The party has stated it will continue the current ban on graduate dependant visas and notably, has not commented on the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) report recommendations concerning the graduate route. Pre-election, the Conservatives' plan to remove the two-year period in which a student can stay in the UK was reversed, meaning that firms in the UK could still access this pool of skilled young people.


Although issues relating to international students are often overshadowed by national migration net targets, the issues which international students (Masters level and above), researchers and academics face are often not discussed or mentioned in any campaign debates or manifestos. The UK’s higher education sector is dependent upon international academics, what is the UK government doing to support their presence and the vital contributions internationals make to the survival and prestige of the UK’s universities and colleges?


Spring 2024 in the UK saw a new set of immigration rules come into force that will severely affect international academics within the UK higher education and universities sector. In November 2023, the LEI produced an event and thinkpiece titled ‘International Students and Immigration: Tackling Myths and Misconceptions’, which provides a detailed evaluation of the expectations of academics coming to the UK, and most significantly, what they must prove in order to meet Government requirements. 2024 has brought new changes – and not for the better.


What will the new Labour government do to address the pressing concerns within our higher education institutions?


For most budding academics, the financial consequences of moving to the UK with a partner, spouse, or family does not overrule the benefits of pursuing education and work in UK academic institutions. However, this is likely to reverse. Under current legislation, a dependant of an international academic can only come to the UK if the academic can prove that they earn over £18,700 per annum. Under the new legislation, this figure increases to £38,700 – a rise of 206.9% on the current minimum earnings requirement. This figure is unlikely to attract professional academics to the UK in order to produce research, and will almost certainly add to the pressure and concerns that academics currently residing in the UK already face.


The Office of National Statistics (ONS) April 2023 data collection shows that the median gross annual earnings for full-time employees in the UK lies at £34,963. In other words, there is a stark contrast between the new figure of a required minimum of £38,700 for international academics and the UK’s national average earnings. It is important to note that those with a right to reside in the UK are exempt from extra supplement charges, such as the health surcharge in order to access NHS treatments, which provide further associated costs to pursuing an education or academic career in the UK. International academics are required not just to prove that in order to bring a family member, partner, or dependant to the UK they must earn over this high threshold, but also to take into consideration the additional costs that come with choosing to live, work, and study in the UK too.


University application data in the 2023-24 academic year has shown a 33% fall in the number of study visas compared to the previous academic year (2022-23). The extent to which these new costs are actively impacting decisions for students to study in the UK is evident. The UK university financial system depends on the unrestricted fees that institutions can charge international students, in comparison to the £9,250 home fees for domestic students. With such a significant drop in students choosing the UK to pursue higher education, the stability and future of UK institutions and their global reputations will be placed under threat. Postgraduate student acceptances are also down by 37% this year alone, lower than acceptances in both 2022 and 2023.


A study by Universities UK (UUK) has shown that since 2019, international students pay an average of £17,000 for their studies each year, contributing £60 billion to the UK’s entire economy. With applications declining by over a third, speculatively speaking, the UK is at risk of losing £20 billion in income every year. With the UK entering an economic recession, losing a vital asset to the UK economy through barring international pathways into UK institutions with high costs and tighter immigration restrictions is going to negatively impact the UK and cause severe financial dislocation for many institutions.


Immigration exploitation routes dominate discourses surrounding the abuse of graduate visa route as a ‘gateway’ into the UK. In April 2024, the Government called for a restriction of the graduate visa into the UK, spelling financial turmoil for the postgraduate higher education sector which relies so heavily on international fees. Political exploitation is a concern; however, the vast majority of these students entering the UK are legitimately in search of learning opportunities, and are arriving in the UK to access its world-class institutions to pursue further education.


In May 2024, with pressure mounting from the opposition, Rishi Sunak has instead agreed to focus on closing the loopholes in the system to prevent abuse rather than scrapping the graduate visa scheme entirely. Measures that are being considered include a clampdown on overseas agents who market British degree courses with penalties if they do not supply the students they promise, mandatory English tests at the end of a student’s studies to remain in the UK, and universities/colleges with high dropout rates losing their licences to recruit overseas. More than 20 vice-chancellors from universities across the North urged Sunak to accept the findings of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), highlighting that applications to their institutions are shrinking, which will have a catastrophic impact on the local region as it relies on the injection of cash as a result of the presence of international students.


Discussions with students and researchers at King's College London, all who wished to remain anonymous, highlighted the growing uncertainty and juxtaposition of placing this cost on international academics:

 

‘This is a frightening decision for many of us who would want to bring loved ones to the UK. The amount that they are asking for at £38,700 from the current £18,700 minimum income requirement is a big leap. This is a salary that not many Brits are earning at the moment.’ (PhD Candidate)

 

‘To start selecting whether or not someone is worthy to enter a country based on income is a very tough barrier. Many highly skilled people, who greatly contribute to the UK economy in terms of research, and who just fall short of this amount, will lose the ability to build their lives in the UK and build their careers.’ (Postdoctoral Researcher)

 

‘This is a very disappointing and unfair measure that is also accompanied by not allowing many dependants to join their parents and partners. This is also especially unfair towards women who would want to be able to bring their children. I benefitted from this possibility and my family is here too. I think this new rule is very inhumane.’ (Professor)

 

Ultimately, as these quotes suggest, from PhD candidates to professors, the hike in the costs to bringing predominantly family members or partners to the UK is being met with widespread discontent across a wide spectrum of academics. Uncertainty is the common thread that underlies the decision process for academics. To stay is to potentially be isolated from family or partners if they do not meet the salary criteria, yet to return to their country of origin means leaving behind the career they have found in the UK. The LEI has highlighted the positive economic contribution that academics bring to the UK. By implementing this new policy, the Government is not only further solidifying the perception that the UK is inhospitable to migrants, but fuelling the idea that it is also inhospitable to future academics and highly skilled people. Britain is a multicultural nation and should not be restricting and curbing academic migration, as it would be to the detriment of not just UK academia in general, but also the UK’s domestic economy.


In response to the prominence of this important debate in the UK media, the Department for Education have stated “We are fully focused on striking the right balance between acting decisively to tackle net migration, which we are clear is far too high, and attracting the brightest students to study at our universities.” With the next general election due to take place in July 2024, the status and perceptions of international students in the UK will no doubt be a highly contentious subject – not just for the financial stability of higher education institutions in the UK, but for how they are placed within the migratory figures which dominate election narratives.


From a policy perspective, the LEI recommends that international students and academics should be taken out of the UK net migration figures. Since a small percentage of these internationals go on to stay in the UK to pursue further education or work within the UK higher education sector, the perception of these migrants conflates those who stay temporarily for the sole purpose of studying with the aim of returning home afterwards and those who come to settle in the UK permanently. The Government’s choice to include international students and academics in its net migration figures is purely political. There is no reason to include these students and academics in official migration figures when many arrive on temporary visas, which in turn creates false and negative depictions of academics who choose to settle in the UK.


Key recommendations the LEI calls for:


  1. To remove international students and academics from official net migration targets and figures.

  2. Secure the financial ability for students and academics to bring spouses, partners, or family members who work in high-skilled sectors to the UK, by lowering the earning requirements and restricting these costs at a maximum to align with the UK average earnings.

  3. Recognise the vital contributions made by international students and academics to the development of new partnerships and the continuation of innovative production across a wide range of fields.

  4. Ensure the means to secure the UK’s legacy as a global hub for the production of high-quality research through international collaborations based in the UK.

  5. Emphasise the adverse effects of the rise of the salary requirement on the family unit, especially when an academic is already in the UK but dependants are unable to follow as a result of this new legislation.

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