It’s been the on and off again story of the late spring but Home Secretary Suella Braverman has announced a restriction in the use of dependant visas for international students.
Up until these changes, the dependant visa allowed partners or children to come to the UK where a student is studying a full time course at postgraduate level that is at least nine months long – where they are a government sponsored student on a full-time course that is nine months or longer, or where a student has already been studying in the UK and meets specific requirements around Tier 4 visas and course length.
In a statement Braverman announced a package of measures to curb the use of dependant visas. The package includes measures to only allow international students to bring dependants where they are studying on postgraduate research programmes, the removal of the ability for international students to switch from a student visa before the end of their studies, steps to review maintenance requirements for students and their dependants, and a planned crackdown on “unscrupulous” education agents.
Labour leader Keir Starmer had already said that Labour would back the proposals.
Many will be concerned about timing here – although no date for implementation is mentioned in the Home Office press release or the statement, much of the media is reporting that the ban will take effect from January 2024 – which leaves this autumn’s big recruitment round operating on the old rules. The sector may nevertheless be wise to show restraint over what is likely to be a huge surge in demand in the next few months.
There is also mention of consultation on longer-term alternative approaches to dependants:
Our intention is to work with universities over the course of the next year to design an alternative approach that ensures that the best and the brightest students can bring dependants to our world leading universities, while continuing to reduce net migration. We will bring in this system as soon as possible, after thorough consultation with the sector and key stakeholders.
Braverman’s justification is that this package will lower net migration figures. Given the ongoing unwinding of her flagship small boats policy it seems that the Home Secretary has reached for one of the few levers available to lower the numbers. The idea of students being counted within net migration figures has always been disputed including by other Conservative MPs.
Some would argue that this all represents a political gamble, where the inevitable damage this measure will do to the UK’s global attractiveness to talent is worth it in order to look tough on immigration. Polling by Public First for Universities UK suggests only nine per cent of the public believe international students and researchers should be discouraged from coming to the UK. It is therefore debatable, at best, whether this policy will be a vote winner.
Impact on recruitment
For the higher education sector there will of course be concern that this will impact universities’ ability to recruit international students.
There is evidence that the ongoing growth and diversification of the international student body is in part being fuelled by the dependant visa. In 2022, 22 per cent of all sponsored study visas granted were to dependants of students compared to six per cent in 2019. There were 60,923 dependants from Nigeria awarded a visa up from 1,586 in 2019. The number of dependants from India grew more than twelve times during the same period.
A few years ago the dominant market for international postgraduate students was China. This was concentrated in a small number of research-focused universities, and saw young (and usually dependant-free) Chinese students studying postgraduate taught programmes. Fees were high, attracting a lot of investment in recruitment and the establishment of more than a few university centres and branch campuses.
The policy decision to freeze home tuition fees has attracted a larger pool of providers to the postgraduate market. With China largely sewn up by the Russell Group, this second wave of international recruitment has seen more specialist and vocational providers recruit students from a range of other countries – most notably India and Nigeria.
Jim Dickinson and Livia Scott took a deep dive into Nigerian recruitment for Wonkhe back at the end of last year. It’s a huge deal both as a route to study and a route to economic migration for thousands of ambitious and talented young Nigerians – and it is notable that a cultural tendency to marry and start families earlier means that often dependants travel with a young family in tow. To a certain extent, this also holds true for India.
So it seems that the rapid growth in dependants is fuelled by a rapid growth in student numbers and a diversification in domiciles. Again, there are a lot of factors that are encouraging student migration – like the post-study work visa, and the ease of transfer between student and skilled worker visas – but there is a parallel rise in student numbers and dependant visas.
For example, there are 126,535 Indian students in the UK today compared to 27,495 in 2018-19. One provider has grown its annual intake of students from the country by close to an additional 5,000 students:
What should be clear here is that this is a decision that affects the life chances of prospective students in some countries but not others, and one that puts recruitment (and thus financial) pressure on some groups of providers but not others. It is fair to argue that universities have been slow to react to the growth in dependants, and that the provision of everything from housing to childcare has been found wanting on the supply side, but this policy decision does not directly or explicitly address those issues – it just chokes off demand.
Instead we see a policy that is at odds with the stated aim of the government to grow international education income, and to encourage the “brightest and best” to come to the UK – though it will be argued that research postgraduates are unaffected, the route from taught to research is well trodden – with a positive experience of the former often determining the choice of institution for the latter.
And by the time this announcement – complete with red meat for the more excitable Conservative backbenchers – is filtered through overseas media it could do a lot of damage to the UK’s reputation as a welcoming and supportive environment offering world class higher education.