“Some signs of spring” (on international education)

It seems as if we have all been living through a very long winter since the coalition government in 2010 first established its net migration target which, through its associated policies, seems to have done so much harm to perceptions of the UK as a welcoming destination for international students.

The restriction of Secure English Language Testing (SELTs) to a limited number of centres around the world, strict limits on study periods, restrictions on bringing dependants, the ban on part-time work for those in private colleges (and lower limits for those in other FE colleges), academic progression, tougher sponsor compliance, visa refusal rates, credibility interviews, Immigration Health Charge. The list goes on and on.

The question is now, though, whether the newly launched international education strategy and especially its references to visa policies and processes will be sufficient to turn the tide and make the UK once again the place where international students want to study and where they might expect to have bright futures?

There is a long road ahead

There are some positive features in the ‘ambitions’ within the strategy but in reality there is much, much more to do.

The six-month period of post-study leave for many or most HE students does of course extend what was called the ‘Tier 4 pilot’ from merely postgraduate students at 27 HEIs to all degree students (so widening to include those who have completed undergraduate and not just postgraduate courses) which is good news. As is the extra 12 months for PhD candidates – which would probably only replace, rather than supplement, the current doctorate extension scheme but would/will at least avoid the need for an extra Tier 4 application.

Neither of these changes came as much of a surprise as they were both included in the Immigration White Paper but they are good to see and welcome all the same.

They give a little bit more time for students to search for and secure a Tier 2 job but sadly time is not the only obstacle to non EU students finding good jobs in the UK following their huge investment in education here. They currently have to get what is defined as a ‘graduate level’ job at a minimum (‘new entrant’) salary of at least £20,800 (and much more in some professions) and only from the limited range of employers who hold a Home Office Tier 2 sponsor licence – and without a relaxation of at least some of these requirements, it is difficult to see how their (and our) prospects will improve.

One’s tempted to ask how many UK students would be able to do this within six months of graduation and especially outside London?

Losing valuable talent

I remember not so long ago having the case referred to us of a very bright international student from southern Africa with a Master’s degree and an offer of a job as a Marketing Assistant in a leading London (bizarrely immigration) law firm and on a starting salary of £36,000. Lucky her, it seemed. But of course it was not to be as whilst the employer was a sponsor and the salary well over the minimum, the post was not acceptable as a ‘marketing assistant’ is apparently not a ‘graduate level’ position and so she had to go home and the UK lost much talent.

And those working in tech or education or in the third sector or in the north east or in Scotland will tell similar tales of good jobs being available but not from the restricted list of licensed employers or not at the required salary levels.

So what we have got is a modest move in the right direction – and I think we should all celebrate that both at home and overseas – but something that falls far short of a competitive post-study work scheme. We can only hope that the new research just being released by HEPI and Kaplan (‘The UK’s tax revenues from international students post graduation’) which shows just how much the UK would benefit from enabling much higher numbers of students to work in the UK following their studies, will be heard by the Treasury and others. And, when the politics is right, lead to much wider changes.

Looking at the bigger picture, though, there are also references to improvements to visa processing. These would be welcome and are, we understand, under consideration by the Home Office, especially in the context of needing to design a system which will encompass both EU students and non EU students post Brexit. And of course we should encourage and engage in that process.

But if the fundamental architecture and complexity of Tier 4 is not seriously addressed and the system not simplified (from SELTs to Academic Technology Approval Scheme clearance, visa processing, credibility interviews, biometric residence permit collection, police registration, attendance monitoring, visa refusal rates, restrictions on FE study and the inability of those students to apply within the UK to continue their studies at HE level), and a real post-study work scheme not introduced at some stage, one fears that the numerical ‘ambition’ of raising HE numbers to 600,000 (and I wonder why we could not have called it a ‘target’?) may not be achieved.

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