Theresa May’s U-turn over student visas: Is the battle over?


Theresa May’s plan to scrap bridging visas for non-EU international student graduates has received a lot of criticism in the last few days - inluding a sharp campaign by Sir James Dyson, and the former minister David Willets - and has finally been blocked (for now).  It is reported that the chancellor, George Osborne, forced the home secretary, Theresa May, to back down. Eventhough the proposal appeared in the Tories' 2010 general election manifestor, it will not be invoked.

Under the current conditions, non-EU graduates have four months to obtain a job worth £24,000 a year and apply for a work visa. This system will continue which means that non-EU students will not have to return home and apply for work and a new visa from outside the UK. This is good news, not only for the non-EU students, but also for the UK, which would have risked losing these highly-skilled UK trained graduates, especially in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths).

But Simon Marginson, professor of International Higher Education at UCL Institute of Education, writes in The Guardian (January 7, 2015) that the UK’s disastrous policy on international students is still far from resolved. He says that the home secretary, with all the weight of her office, has turned non-EU students into another migration bogey, akin to Ukip’s Romanians and Bulgarians. According to Marginson, Theresa May has gifted Nigel Farage with an issue he can run with, either before the election or under a Tory-Ukip coalition government.

The home secretary, Theresa May, has tried to defend her position by pumping up the scare factor. She has noted that there will be 600,000 non-EU students a year by the next decade, if nothing is done about this.  Each year, she says, 121,000 non-EU students arrive and only 51,000 leave. Put this way, the implications are clear - non-EU students overstay and May fears Britain will be overrun.

the home secretary however, does not seem to see that her presentation of the numbers simply benefit Ukip. However, these numbers do not fit with the downward trend in non-EU student numbers.

Until 2012, non-EU graduates in the UK were given two years to find a job.  This was akin to the present rules operating in Australia and Canada, though not as generous.

According to Marginson, when this was scaled down to four months, the number of graduates who were granted extended visas dropped by 84% in one year.  Only 6,238 such visas were granted to non-EEA graduates in 2013. When the UK began to close the door to the rest of the world, non-EU student entry fell in response, with a 5% drop in non-EU postgraduate student numbers in 2012-13.

Interestingly, the only English-speaking country where non-EU student numbers are falling, is the UK. But for a government under pressure, it is not fast enough to block migration.

This has set back the efforts to take international students out of the net migration target, the object of a strenuous campaign by Lords committees, industry and Universities UK.

Even among the Tory hard-liners who refused to back the home secretary this time round, the reduction of non-EU students is still central to the government’s plan to cut migration numbers.

The UK is already hurting from the slowdown of high-skill mobility. It will be hurt further if net migration comes down at a faster rate. This not only detonates two generations of marketing the UK as the cosmopolitan global centre, it fundamentally undermines the economy.

High cross-border mobility is not only the norm, but it is culturally and economically inevitable. Countries like North Korea that go it alone pay the price.

In 2012-13, 43% of all postgraduates enrolled in UK engineering and technology, and 50% of those in maths, were non-EU students.  It is a widely acknowledged fact that advanced economies depend on access to the global pool of high skills.

It is much harder for non-EU graduates, to apply for work from outside the UK. The best UK-trained graduates would be the ones most likely to go to countries with more welcoming immigration regimes, such as the US and Canada.  The slow UK visa processing (another consequence of the anti-migration politics that has gripped the government) would also help push graduates to countries other than the UK.

The US has swung the door open to STEM graduates under the Obama government, stapling a green card to the diplomas of STEM graduates. In 2013-14 there was an 8% increase in international student numbers in the US while numbers in the UK had a downward trend.

Theresa May has been stopped this time, but one cannot help wondering if the battle is over.

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