The Government's New Rules for International Students: A Guide

International students in the UK are having a tough time. Their plight has been made worse by the home secretary's recent announcement of changes to the immigration rules.

NUS students protest against the Home Office on International Migrants Day last December. Photograph: Alamy/The Guardian NUS students protest against the Home Office on International Migrants Day last December. Photograph: Alamy/The Guardian
29-07-2015 by The Guardian

The home secretary, Theresa May, in a recent confidential letter, wrote that universities should “develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students”.  The business secretary, Sajid Javid, has also fueled the discussion.  Recently he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he wants to “break the link” between studying and settling to work in the UK.

The government, since it came to power, has tried to make it more difficult for international students to stay in the UK after completing their studies.  This is the result of the government's failed plan to cut net immigration to below 100,000 per year and reduce visa fraud.

Most significantly, the government scrapped the post-study work visa in 2012. The post-study work visa had allowed non-EU students to stay in the UK and work for up to two years after graduation.

But international students have also been hit by a new NHS charge for hospital treatment. On top of paying extortionate university tuition fees – up to four times as much as UK students on some courses – which can rise without notice, international students now also have to pay an NHS charge.

Although the media has reported that all international students will now be kicked out as soon as their course ends because of a new rule, this isn’t the case. The new rule only applies to students in further education colleges.  It does not apply to universities. 

In fact, the latest rules depend very much on whether you are studying at a university or a further education college. 

Changes affecting international students at UK universities

  • Evidence of savings upon arrival: Students will be required to show evidence of a significantly greater amount. The amount of money international students will need to have access to will increase from November 2015. This will apply to international students extending their time in the UK, as well as those arriving in the country for the first time.  This amount will be higher for those students studying in London. It should be noted, that the area considered as London will be expanded. This will mean that a greater number of students will be affected. Currently, international students need to show that they have enough money for course fees and living costs for (a)two months if they have an “established presence” or (b) nine months if they do not have an "established presence".  However, it should be noted that the 'established presence' provision is being removed.  This means that all students will need to show they can support themselves for up to nine months or the full length of their course - whichever is shorter. For example, a PhD student in London and needing to extend for nine months will have to show the availability of £11,385 in the bank rather than the current amount of £2,040.
  • Academic progression: Stricter rules. From 3 August 2015, students who want to extend their general visas must be moving up a level on the National Qualifications Framework. For those who want to extend their studies at the same level, this extension will only be possible if the proposed course is linked to the previous one, or if it supports career aspirations, as determined by the university where the student is studying. So, for example, an international student won’t be able to do a BA in English if this student already has a BA in sociology. Applicants for doctoral qualifications can however continue at the same level.
  • Tier 2 visas: the minimum salary requirement is likely to increase. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee is reviewing tier 2 visas.  This is the most common route by which international students stay and work in the UK.  However, in a bid to reduce the number of non-EEA migrants working in the UK, the government is reviewing tier 2 visas. Currently, in order for international (non EEA) students to be able to stay and work with a tier 2 (general) visa after their studies, the international graduate’s employer must currently pay at least £20,800 and sponsor a work visa.  However, this minimum salary requirement looks set to rise. It is noted that a small number of international students may be able to stay and work in the UK by other means, such as a tier 1 (graduate entrepreneur) visa, a tier 5 (temporary worker) visa, a tier 1 (entrepreneur) visa or a tier 1 (investor). [Information about these can be found here.]
  • Spouses and dependants: their rights to work in the UK may be restricted. Currently, most international students below master’s level are already banned from bringing dependants. However, international postgraduates can currently bring spouses and other dependants if their course lasts a year or more.  This also applies to students who are fully sponsored by their government for a course longer than six months. But the Home Office, according to The Times, has circulated proposals to ban dependants from being employed in low-skilled jobs. This change could disproportionately affect science and technology departments, since around 47% of students on postgrad Stem courses are international students.

Changes for international students at further education colleges

  • Students will no longer be able to extend their visa or switch to a work visa while in the UK. From November, tier 4 (general) students at colleges will have to apply from outside the UK, creating a barrier to further study or employment.
  • They won’t be able to extend their studies in the UK unless they are registered at an institution with a formal link to a university. This comes into force on 12 November and could limit students’ progression from colleges to universities.
  • Those at publicly funded FE colleges will be banned from working part-time. They can currently work for up to 10 hours per week and for an unlimited time outside term time. The new rule will apply to students who apply for their tier 4 visa on or after 3 August, but won’t apply retrospectively to students already here. International students at private colleges lost this right in 2011. 
  • Study visas at FE level will be cut from three years to two. The government says the change, which comes into force on 12 November, will help ensure academic progression. But some FE courses can run for more than two years, and this change could reduce the number of qualifications students are able to gain while in the UK.

International students have some powerful supporters

  • Within the government, chancellor George Osborne is more welcoming of international students than May. In January he blocked her plan to expel foreign students upon graduation, allegedly warning it would damage the economy.
  • As deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg was also against May’s plan when it was first floated last year. He called for international students to be removed from immigration targets and urged the government to adopt a flexible approach to student visas – a viewpoint notably absent from this Conservative government.
  • Business leaders such as Sir James Dyson have spoken out against May’s stance on foreign graduates. Dyson says it is difficult enough getting skilled young engineers through the visa system already, without further tightening of the immigration rules.
  • Universities have condemned the rule changes. Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, highlights the contradiction between the government’s long-term plan for economic growth and its tough stance on immigration. Professor Paul Webley, director of Soas university, has also criticised the plans, saying: “International students bring money and – if they stay – talent to the UK that the country would not otherwise attract.”