The two-year post study work visa has returned from the dead, apparently. Multiple statements, from the Prime Minister, the Business Secretary, the Department for Education and, last and least, the Home Office have been released announcing the resurrection of a visa originally introduced in 2004 and killed off by Theresa May in 2012.
As background, the earliest incarnation of the post study work visa was the Science and Engineering Graduates Scheme in 2004, when the visa was limited to graduates in certain subjects and a 12 month post-graduation period of work was permitted. A similar scheme was trialled across all subject areas in Scotland from 2005 as the Fresh Talent: Working in Scotland Scheme, back in the days when regional immigration policy was permitted. The period of work permitted was extended to two years. The scheme was judged a success and rolled out across the UK in 2007 as the International Graduates Scheme, but offering only a 12 month post graduation period in which work was permitted. It was then absorbed into the Points Based System from 2008 as the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa. A more limited six month form of the post-study work visa was reintroduced recently.
The date of implementation is not entirely clear yet, but the announcement suggests it will be available to students starting in the next academic year, September 2020. It is unknown whether current students already on courses in the UK will also benefit from the rule change. It is a shame that space could not be found for the measure in the formal statement of changes to the Immigration Rules that came out just two days ago, which would have provided clarity and certainty to all concerned.
The return of the Blair-era drive to recruit foreign students and acknowledgement that there is stiff international competition to attract them has, unsurprisingly, been welcomed by universities themselves. Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, is quoted in the press release as saying
This is very positive news. Evidence shows that international students bring significant positive social outcomes to the UK as well as £26 billion in economic contributions, but for too long the lack of post-study work opportunities in the UK has put us at a competitive disadvantage in attracting those students.
The introduction of a two-year post-study work visa is something Universities UK has long campaigned for and we strongly welcome this policy change, which will put us back where we belong as a first choice study destination. Not only will a wide range of employers now have access to talented graduates from around the world, these students hold lifelong links in the UK.
An estimated 14% of all university income is from the substantial fees paid by foreign students (first introduced by Tony Crossland in the 1960s during his brief but hugely influential tenure as Education Secretary, I discovered the other day). Not only that but foreign students contribute considerably to the wider economy when they live in the UK, provide a potential talent pool from which employers can recruit and offer potentially huge ‘soft power’ influence to the United Kingdom in the future.
Foreign students fell out of favour under Theresa May for two reasons. Firstly, the insane net migration target meant that any migrant, even an otherwise highly desirably one, became undesirable. May herself said in 2011 when announcing the scrapping of post study work visas:
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.
The scrapping of this visa was closely associated with May herself and Ministers have been scrambling to dissociated themselves from it. The previous Home Secretary himself, Sajid Javid, who was until recently nominally in charge of immigration policy, has tweeted that it is ‘About time. Should have reversed this silly policy years ago.’ Jo Johnson was known to have championed re-introduction of the visa before he quit his brother’s government last week.
The second reason for the fall from grace of this group was that the Home Office wrongly thought that loads of foreign students were overstaying their visas. In fact, the latest evidence is that a tiny percentage do so. With the adjusted data, there was really no rationale for driving numbers down.
Finally, it seems noteworthy that a range of government departments are being associated with the announcement. Even the Department for Education is in on the act. Is this a sign that immigration policy is no longer driven entirely by the Home Office? Let us hope so. Those hoping for a relaxation of the incredibly harsh family immigration rules may be disappointed, though. Foreign students are relatively popular in opinion polling. Migrant family members are not. The timing of this announcement, just after a Statement of Changes to the Immigration Rules which could have implemented the policy and at a time when Conservative electoral strategists must be searching around for a way to make the government seem more liberal, certainly points to this being about positive polling rather than good governance.