I wasn’t planning on doing a blog this week, but this is an issue that’s been niggling me recently. There have been attempts over the last few months to force non-EU students to go home as soon as they finish their degrees. The proposed change would mean that international students who got jobs in the UK would have leave the country at the end of their studies and apply for work visas from overseas. This has been a big news issue and culminated in a spat in the cabinet. They put the kibosh on the it other day, at least for the time being. It was an embarrassing U-turn for the people pushing the change, but a major relief to quite a few others.
There are a few interesting bits to this:
- The general background and why the change was proposed;
- Who opposed it and why;
- What the situation is for international students if they want to stay in the UK after they graduate.
Anti-immigration rhetoric is sadly common in all countries, and the UK/Europe in general is awash with it at the moment. At the most hysterical level you have the general fallout from the War On Terror that mixes fear and hate with indignation around ‘our cultures’ supposedly being undermined by immigrants. These are the immigrants who simultaneously take ‘our jobs’ – always a crowd-pleaser during economic recessions – and are a drain on ‘our social services’. The figures point to the fact that immigrants, per capita, ‘give’ much more than they ‘take’, but some people choose to ignore those statistics and focus on partial bits of the picture.
That’s the general backdrop. In the detail, the proposed policy change connected to a pledge by the present government that they would reduce immigration figures below 100,000 people per year. They’re currently missing it by a mile. Sending international students back ASAP was seen as a quick fix and popular step to show that the government was ‘hard on immigration’. Student visa rules had already been tightened and this had led to the first reductions in non-EU students for over fifteen years. Some of this was related to much-hyped cases of some people enrolling at genuine or even bogus universities and colleges. They had no intention of studying and used it as a way of immigrating illegally. Oh, and it’s probably important to mention that we have a general election this year, which ups the ante on everything. Cue hysterical frenzy. For the record, many of us here like foreigners a lot; we are interested in them, what they like, where they come from, and especially in what they eat. We make friends with them and some of us even marry them.
Who wants international students to be able to stay and work?
The universities were worried that making the rules even stricter would further hit their weakened international student numbers. One reason for having ‘internationals’ is that it’s intrinsically good: it’s nice to have them around. They bring new ideas, fresh perspectives and experiences, and they develop a relationship and an understanding with the country and culture where they studied. They are also big business, in two main ways. Firstly, if students develop an affinity with the UK, this is good for international relations in broad terms because they are comfortable dealing with UK delegations, businessfolk, tourists, and so on. This benefit is not necessarily measurable, but it is a recognised form of soft politics. The second way is that international students are an export. From the 1980s onwards, the subsidies for students from overseas were steadily reduced until they had to pay full whack. Universities were already short of cash due to government cuts and these high fees became a means of keeping universities afloat. They have become a bit of a cash cow, and if the numbers fall, this hits university finances hard. International students also spend money on rent, food, fun and so on, too, and this makes a significant contribution to local and national economies. All of this means that there is a global competition for them, and any losses to the UK market share would be soaked up by competing countries. (We gained, for instance, from the falling numbers of people going to study in the US after 9/11.) In addition to the general economic benefits, firms were worried that their ability to recruit the brightest graduates would be affected, and this would limit their ability to compete with other companies. This again connects with international competition because the UK is trying to set itself up (or maintain its position) as a science and technology research hub within the ‘global knowledge economy’. These are seen as pretty strong arguments, and seem to have sunk the policy change.
What is the situation for international students after they graduate?
One article quoted a government official as saying that international students could stay if they’d been offered a graduate job at £24,000 or more. Knowing that the average graduate salary was £21,000, I thought this might cut a lot of people out. I looked it up, and the actual minimum requirement is £20,500, although it can be higher in some cases. Perhaps it’s a fair ask, then? Not necessarily: salaries vary between jobs and degree subjects (and can depend on the university you go to). Generally speaking, if you got a job in any of the medical fields, engineering, or business, you’d probably be okay. If you’d studied opthalmics, pharmacology, music or languages, you might not make the cut. Also, there is already an annual limit to the number of people who can do this ‘in-country’ conversion from international student to graduate worker. (Interestingly, jobs with salaries of £153,000 or more are exempt from this quota. That’s alright then!!) The application documents don’t say what the quota is, but just over 4,000 people took this route in 2013. That’s right, 4,000. That many people a year is not exactly a tidal wave of immigration, and we’re certainly benefitting from having those people around. Even if they’d cut this route as proposed, the difference it would make to the overall figure is tiny. Talk about political grandstanding over a drop in the ocean.