Britain's New Student-Visa Policy Restricts Work Opportunities, but Not as Much as Feared

March 22, 2011

The British government provided details on Tuesday of long-anticipated changes in immigration policy that are expected to cut the number of foreign students in Britain by 25 percent. Universities had campaigned intensely against some of the restrictions the government was considering when it announced the coming policy shift last year, and they won concessions on some issues.

In a written statement announcing the changes, the home secretary, Theresa May, said that "it has become very apparent that the old student-visa regime failed to control immigration and failed to protect legitimate students from poor-quality colleges."

Critics of the existing system have said that it allows too many bogus institutions to operate. The new rules include a requirement that, from April 2012, "all institutions wanting to sponsor students will have to be classed as 'highly trusted sponsors'" and receive accreditation.

Under the new rules, students entering Britain to pursue degree-level courses will have to demonstrate a higher level of proficiency in English than is now the case. Immigration staff "will be able to refuse entry to students who cannot speak English without an interpreter and who therefore do not meet the required standards," the Home Office's announcement said.

The new measures also restrict the ability of foreign students to bring family members into the country with them. Under the current rules, "all students on longer courses are able to bring dependents," but the new rules will allow only graduate students enrolled at universities and government-sponsored students to bring in family members.

The ability of foreign students to work while in the country and after finishing their studies has been among the most contested areas of immigration policy, and the new measures will eliminate what is known as the "post-study work route," which gives students two years to remain in Britain and seek jobs after their programs end. Students at universities and public "further education" colleges will retain the right to work while pursuing their studies, but all other students will be prohibited from seeking employment. New restrictions will also be imposed on work placements for those taking courses outside of universities. Only graduates with an offer of a skilled job from a sponsoring employer will be allowed to remain in Britain to work once they have finished their studies.

Finally, the overall time that can be spent on a student visa will be limited to five years for study toward a bachelor's degree or beyond. There is now no limit for degree-seeking students. The three-year limit on students' study in nondegree courses will be retained.

In announcing the changes, Ms. May said that the government's aim was "not to stop genuine students coming here—it is to eliminate abuse within the system."

Mixed Response

Universities UK, the vice chancellors' representative organization, which had lobbied against the most restrictive of the proposed measures, issued a written statement welcoming the changes the government had made since first announcing its proposed policy. The original proposal was even stricter on cutting off graduates' work opportunities in Britain. The ability of foreign students to work in the country after graduating "is critically important in attracting international students to the U.K., and without this we would be at a severe competitive disadvantage in comparison with other countries such as Canada, the U.S., and Australia," the statement said.

The Russell Group, which represents Britain's 20 leading, research-intensive universities, also said it was pleased that the government had eased some of the more-restrictive measures on work. The revised proposals, it said in a statement, "try to ensure that our ability to attract the best students is not harmed while cracking down on any abuses of the immigration system." However, it added that "much will depend" on how the proposals are carried out, and said it would be closely monitoring their effects on the group's member universities.

The National Union of Students said in its statement that "important concessions had been won but that the closure of the post-study work route would act as a huge disincentive to talented students coming to the U.K."

A recent survey by the student union of 8,000 international students found that nearly 70 percent of them would not choose to study in Britain without the post-study work option. The union's president, Aaron Porter, said in the statement that the newly announced measures "do not make clear whether students already in the U.K. on the understanding that they have the option to work after graduation will still have that route open to them." He asked the home secretary to confirm that those students would continue to be able to work.

In its statement, the University and College Union, the main faculty union, said that the government "had ignored advice from the academic community" and that its plans "would damage the U.K.'s international reputation for education excellence and harm the economy."

The union's secretary general, Sally Hunt, said that "the government's student-visa plans are short-sighted and risk sending out the worrying message that the U.K. is closed for business."