The Government has announced that it will be abandoning a change made by Theresa May in 2012 which reduced the length of time international students could remain in the country from two years to just four months. The reversal would also remove caps on post-study visas.
In a tweet, Boris Johnson said the reversal would attract the “brightest and the best” minds to the UK. He also stressed Britain’s history of “scientific ingenuity” and called attention to the UK’s work on genetics programs, reflecting the government’s hope that more international students will venture into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) employment.
Evidence from the past several years indicates that restricting post-study visas has a major effect on how many foreign students come to the UK. Before the visa restriction was implemented in 2012, the rate of new international students was showing growth. Between 2006 and 2012, around 100,000 new international students came to study in the United Kingdom. After the restriction, the rate of new students declined significantly: only 23,000 new international students chose to come to the UK for higher education between 2012 and 2018.
This decline is stark, and its impacts are serious. International students are important contributors to the British economy. According to a 2018 Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, international students had an export value of £17.6 billion in 2015, creating job opportunities and positively impacting their areas of study. The report also noted that most students who remain in the UK after graduating move into STEM or business-related jobs, which bodes well for the UK’s genetics research. International students also benefit domestic students by paying higher tuition fees, in effect helping to subsidise lower domestic tuition fees and research projects.
Attracting more international students is not only good for the economy: it is also a major soft power. A report by Russell Group universities illustrates that the “benefits for the UK as international graduates return home and become ambassadors for the UK and our HE system are considerable.” However, these benefits are not limited only to the UK. China, for instance, is increasingly incentivising foreign students to attend its universities through lower tuition and scholarships. These students return home with a positive view of China and build Chinese political influence around the world.
If Western nations close off their higher education systems to international students, they are in danger of losing much more than economic advantages. But, Boris Johnson’s extension of British student visas may well help Britain regain a competitive advantage.
Nick Hillman, of the, commented that “we’ve been slipping behind our competitors because our offer has been so uncompetitive,” adding that the new policy would increase the attractiveness of British higher education.
Not all reactions have been so optimistic. Migration Watch, a think tank which advocates for more restrictive immigration laws, described the measure as “unwise and retrograde.” The tank claims that foreign graduates do not attain high-skilled jobs and simply remain in the UK to “stack shelves,” in the words of the think tank’s president, Alp Mehmet.
Indeed, the 2018 MAC report mentioned above and cited by Migration Watch found that “the earnings of some [foreign] graduates who remain in the UK seem surprisingly low.” These findings should not be taken in a vacuum, however. A 2019 HEPI report found that foreign graduates earn more than their domestic counterparts in 15 out of 21 subject categories.
Other critics argue that the new policy disadvantages foreign students graduating this year, who will not benefit from the extended post-study visa time allowance. One student, Shreya Swamy, who has struggled to find gainful employment in part due to the four month restriction, told the BBC that it was a “sad day” for her when she heard the announcement because she would not be able to take advantage of it.
Though Shreya and students like her are right to lament the late coming of this much-needed reversal, it is important to acknowledge that it is an essential first step in liberalising the UK immigration system and ending Theresa May’s hostile environment doctrine.