Turning Away Talent: The Immigration Bill and overseas students

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Thursday, April 3, 2014
Amani El Sehrawey

Immigration is a consistently hot-button topic in Britain, and the 2013-2014 Immigration Bill, currently in the committee stage in the House of Lords, has not been without its share of controversy.

One area of policy that has been consistently contentious in recent years regards that towards overseas students, whose contribution to the British economy in both fees and living expenses are estimated at £10 billion. In addition to the quantifiable economic contributions non-EEA overseas students bring to the UK, the international student population represents a highly skilled segment of society, contributing to Britain’s intellectual capital as well as acting as a “soft power” for Britain abroad.

The vast majority of international students return to their home countries to permanently settle, and provide a valuable asset in spreading British values and ideas across the globe. However, as Vince Cable rightly claimed, the UK has been increasingly put out the message that “Britain is not open for business” when it comes to the international higher education sector, and the immigration reform bill currently before Parliament continues on this disappointing trajectory.

Several contentious policies have been implemented that make the UK an increasingly less attractive place for overseas students to come to study. Most notably, the discontinuation of the post-study work visa in April 2012 was a major blow. The post-study work visa allowed international students an additional two year visa extension in which to find permanent employment, a major incentive for overseas students to study in the UK.

With the post-study work category eliminated, international students, many of whom have spent years in the country, are given a mere few months to find graduate employment or be kicked out. In an economy where graduate jobs are scarce, the few months given at the end of study proves to be a near impossible time frame to find sponsored employment.

Furthermore, the Government has simultaneously kept the number of Tier 2 work visas available stagnant, at 20,700 annually. On top of this, graduate must find entry-level positions that offer salaries of £20,300 annually or more, a threshold unrealistic to meet in many industry sectors. As a result, Britain’s best and brightest international talents are often forced to leave upon graduation, taking their ideas and innovations that could be put towards growing the British economy with them.

The classification of international students as migrants in the statistical calculations of net migration adds to the problematic policy approach to overseas students. The Conservative pledge to reduce net migration appears to have focused on international student migration as an easy fix to reducing the numbers. However, the long-term cost of this policy is high. Instituting controls on net migration is at times necessary.

However, Britain’s future growth certainly has a lot to gain from becoming a hub for international talent, rather than by pushing such talent away. Professor Garton Ash of Oxford University estimates a drop in Indian applications to UK universities by 25 per cent in 2013/14, which follows a drop of 50 per cent the year before. The UK is quickly finding itself in a losing battle against highly competitive American and Canadian universities, which along with comparable academic experiences, provide far friendlier policies towards international students, and give them greater opportunity to develop their careers in the country after completing their degree.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Technology and Science has launched an inquiry addressing the effects of the current and proposed legislation as it relates to STEM students in particular, which touches on the wider effects of the immigration bill on all Britain’s international students. Several universities involved in the inquiry reported detrimental effects on multiple degree programs in valuable subject areas including medicine and pharmacology, due to a significant drop in overseas applicants. The drop in foreign students not only compromises the viability of certain degree programs within universities in the valuable STEM disciplines, but also compromises the internationally diverse intellectual communities that the universities are invested in cultivating.

The health care levy, removal of the right to appeal, and immigration checks by landlords are further reforms in the new bill that were seen as prohibitive and hostile by several of the academics consulted. The inquiry testimonies reiterate the damaging effects of the current immigration policy as it relates to STEM and all overseas students, not only to the higher education sector, but to the wider British economy.

The overwhelming conclusion of the inquiry testimonies suggests that this is a direct effect of government policy. The testimonies repeatedly point to the closure of the post-study work visa category, the restrictive nature of the Tier 4 visa application process, and the overall anti-immigrant sentiment driving British rhetoric as creating a climate that makes the UK an increasingly unattractive place to be an overseas student. Their testimonies consistently call for a reversal of these policies that dangerously restrict Britain’s talent pool.

The newest reforms in the immigration bill unfortunately do not represent a reversal in policy, but instead reinforce Britain as an unwelcoming environment for international students. Reducing the number of overseas students coming into the UK is not in the British economy’s best interests, nor is it an effective means of curbing immigration. The ripple effects of a decline in the ability to attract and keep young emerging global leaders expand beyond higher education into British business and industry, as the newest innovators take their ideas and expertise elsewhere.

The author is an intern at the Bow Group.