09 July 2012

Government considering changing tack on foreign students

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The coalition Government is reportedly considering altering its stance on foreign students in order to bring UK immigration figures better in line with targets and reduce the damage on the country's international education industry.

UK immigration

David Cameron is reportedly considering removing international students from net migration figures after Home Office reports suggest strict student visa measures are costing £2.6 billion a year.

The Conservative Party made reducing net migration to the UK a cornerstone of their election manifesto, promising to reduce the current levels of approximately 250,000 a year to the 'tens of thousands' by the end of the current parliament in 2015.

The coalition has set about making substantial changes to UK immigration policies since taking office. Led by Home Secretary Theresa May and Immigration Minister Damian Green, changes include adding salary thresholds and increasing waiting times before migrants can apply for settlement.

While all these changes have encountered criticism from various concerned parties, it is perhaps the Government's changes to foreign student policy which have generated the most.

International students are now restricted to just 20 hours a week of employment to support their studies and the post study work right has been removed. This change has meant that foreign students can no longer live and work in the UK for two years after graduating and instead have to either secure a full time position earning at least £20,000 or return home.

The Government maintains that the student visa system is the one most open to abuse by shameless people who use the guise of international study to actually find employment in the UK. Immigration Minister Damian Green has maintained that the UK remains open to the 'brightest and best' international students and the changes only target abuse of the system.

Criticism

The UK, alongside the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is a world leader in the international education industry, generating billions of pounds per year for the British economy. However, unlike its competitors, the UK is the only country to include international student figures in its net migration figures, and this is what has drawn the most criticism.

A coalition of chancellors and vice-chancellors from British universities and colleges wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron in May claiming the changes would cost as much as £8 billion a year and urging the Government to remove international students from migration figures, therefore reducing the changes' necessity.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) also accused the Government of 'gaming' migration figures. By including student numbers, claimed the IPPR, the Government could simply make it harder for students to study in the UK and therefore achieve the reduction they want without actually tackling the abuses of illegal immigration.

Politicians from both opposition and Government have also expressed their concern over the impact the changes are having on the education industry.

Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi and Labour MP Paul Bloomfield complained that there is a "growing perception abroad that in terms of higher education, Britain is closed for business".

"Recent changes to the student visa system have unfortunately broadcast the message that foreign students are unwelcome. We've already seen a dramatic fall in students coming from traditional markets such as India," said the two politicians.

Resistance

The Government had resisted the mounting pressure by continuing to make further changes and insisting that the changes were beginning to take effect; just last month Mr Green claimed a 62% decrease in visa applications from Indian students was proof they were doing the right thing.

Mr Green also rebuffed the insistences to remove students from migration numbers as 'silly', claiming that it would simply be 'fiddling' the figures to 'redefine our way out of a problem'.

However, the minister did not remain aloof to the changes' effects and was even forced to implore foreign students to study in the UK, joining other British diplomats who had to reassure Indian students over UK visa policy.

Numbers

Mr Green's insistences that the changes are beneficial were necessary after the latest immigration figures released in May revealed that the Government's changes had had almost a negligible effect on net migration; just a 3,000 decrease to 252,000 was reported.

Altered approach

While Mr Green may remain defiant in the face of such mounting criticism and seemingly supporting evidence, reports from Downing Street suggest the prime minister is not so comfortable.

Claims from the Home Office confirming that reduced numbers of foreign students studying in the UK could be costing a still floundering British economy over £2.5 billion a year have reportedly left Mr Cameron uneasy with the current policies.

"The prime minister understands these arguments and is definitely considering a change of policy," said a Downing Street source.

While removing international students from the migration figures would certainly be a welcome boost to an economy once again in recession, the Government is determined not to let up on the clampdown of abuse of the system. Instead, Mr Green's office announced that as many as 10,000 foreign students will be subjected to a compulsory interview process before their visas are granted.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) is to be handed new power which will allow them to refuse entry to any student who does not attend the interview, or any who raises credibility doubts.

"With more interviews and greater powers to refuse bogus students we will weed out abuse and protect the UK from those looking to play the system," said Mr Green.

"We are toughening up the system to keep out the fraudulent and unqualified while ensuring genuine students benefit from our country's excellent education sector.

"If you lie on your application form or try to hide your true motivation for coming to the UK then you will be found out and refused a visa."


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