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The Government would like students to come to the UK, pay their overseas tuition fees (and a few immigration fees along the way) and then, as the great Meatloaf would put it, be gone when the morning comes.

Despite the general reputation of students for promiscuity (ill deserved, I found to my disappointment), many international students, particularly highly intelligent ones wanting to study at top institutions and get highly skilled professional jobs, are not likely to be seduced by the Government’s Mrs Robinson-style approach to relationship building. Still attractive but definitely aging, the UK cannot afford to treat students like a bit on the side. They’ll run off with Ms Robinson, thank you very much. International students are just that: international, and therefore totally mobile. They can choose where they study. Why would they choose to come to the UK rather than the US, Canada or Australia?

In 1999 Tony Blair launched a drive to recruit more foreign students. The intention was to recruit an additional 75,000 by 2005. That target was massively exceeded and in 2006 a new target was set to attract an additional 100,000 by 2011. At the same time the post study work visa was announced and additional funding was provided to universities and colleges to help with the recruitment drive.

Blair himself set out the benefits of attracting foreign students to the UK in an article in The Guardian in 2006:

“This is good news for our universities, our colleges, and the UK as a whole, which benefit both culturally and economically from attracting the brightest people from around the world. In fact, international students contribute over £5bn each year to our economy. Just as importantly, friendships and links are forged, and relations are strengthened between our peoples and countries at many different levels. Many of the foreign leaders and ministers I meet are graduates of our universities.”

The approach of the current Government could not be more different. Immigration is now considered to be a Bad Thing, rather than something that enhances society, economy and foreign relations. Numbers must be cut, at whatever cost, and Theresa May makes no bones about that:

“The package of measures that I have outlined today is expected to reduce the number of student visas by between 70,000 and 80,000-a reduction of more than 25%-and it will increase the outflow of foreign students after they have concluded their studies.”

Immigrants must be discouraged from coming here in the first place and, if they will insist on coming, must be encouraged to leave again. Unless the migrant is very wealthy, anyway. Spouses face additional language obstacles and a proposed extension to the probationary period. The highly skilled migrant route has been eviscerated. Work permits for employers are like hen’s teeth. The post-study work option offered by other countries with which the UK competes for students is being withdrawn.

So, at last, we come to the actual reforms announced last week:

  • From 2012, scrapping of the post study work route that allows international graduates to enter the UK job market for a couple of years after graduating and thereby give them a crack at staying longer-term under Tiers 1 or 2. Students will be able to switch into Tier 2, in the somewhat unlikely event they can find a sponsor straight out of university with no experience.
  • Increasing the level of English and also the re-introduction of subjective judgments by ECOs on quality of spoken English. A new rule of thumb of whether the student requires an interpreter will be used. This may sound reasonable to some, but in reality this reintroduces enormous scope for variation between posts, and at a time when a discrimination on the basis of race has been authorized by the Minister, but against which countries we still do not know.
  • Tightening up of the rules on who can sponsor students.
  • Removal of the right to work part time for 20 hours per week for those studying at private colleges.
  • Removal of the right to bring dependents for all students other than post graduates.
  • A new limit of five years total stay for students at any level, including graduate and post graduate studies (with the current three year limit being retained for lower level courses).

Interestingly, and perhaps unusually for the Tories, Theresa May lauds publicly funded institutions for their responsible, cautious approach but says that the private sector simply cannot be trusted. As a result, the new regime appears to be deliberately designed to decimate the private education sector.

For more information, the Statement of Changes is due 31 March 2011, the UKBA press release is here, the Home Office press release here, a pdf summary of the new policy here and the Commons statement and debate here.

Free Movement

The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.

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