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EU directive eases work, residence rules for non-EU students

In a bid to entice more students from outside Europe to study in the EU, the European Commission has announced visa rules that will make it easier for non-EU students and researchers to work during their studies and to stay on after graduation. They will also facilitate greater freedom of movement for international students between EU countries.

International students at Czech Technical University. Photo: Flickr/Jirka Matousek.

"Universities will be able to strengthen their competitiveness on the global arena, thanks to considerably improved conditions in the EU"

A visa directive approved this month mandates that in two years’ time, EU member states must allow non-EU students and researchers to work for a minimum of 15 hours a week while studying in an EU country and to stay for nine months post-graduation to look for work or set up a business.

The directive, which applies to all EU members except the UK, Ireland and Denmark, also sets out that researchers will have the right to bring family members with them, and that these family members will also have the right to work.

“Exchange students will be able to move around more easily thanks to the new directive”

The changes are based on the results of a consultation that began in 2012 and concluded that “Conditions to enter and stay in the EU are not clear enough and vary between member states”.

The new regulations establish minimum work and residence rights which, at the moment, vary from country to country. For example, Sweden has no limit on the number of hours students can work, and allows them to stay for six months post-graduation to look for a job; while Italy allows students to work 20 hours a week but only allows students with a master’s degree or above to stay and search for work for up to a year.

Rules regarding residence and work are often “not adequately communicated”, according to a European Commission memo, which adds: “Such lack of transparency makes it more difficult for students, researchers and other groups of non-EU nationals to come to the EU.”

The revised visa rules will address this by creating a “harmonised European system applicable in all member states”, according to the European Parliament’s lead MEP, Cecilia Wikström.

“This undoubtedly means that European universities will be able to strengthen their competitiveness on the global arena and become more attractive than ever to ambitious and highly-educated people from other countries, thanks to considerably improved conditions in the EU,” she commented.

The directive will also ensure that students do not need to obtain a second visa to move between countries in the EU.

This will benefit students who study at more than one university in Europe, noted Raisa Asikainen, bilateral student mobility coordinator at the University of Helsinki in Finland, who said she has seen an increase in non-EU students coming to Helsinki for a semester after completing a period of study in Germany or another European country.

“These exchange students will be able to move around more easily thanks to the new directive,” she explained.

“We hope that this directive is only a first step in ensuring that Europe attracts more non-EU students to its campuses”

“Previously they have had to apply for a residence permit to Finland even though they already had one in Germany, which can be quite labour-intensive for students, who have needed to – for example – prove that they have enough income twice, first to German officials and then to Finland.”

The European Students’ Union welcomed the directive, describing it as a “step forward” in the internationalisation of European higher education, but its chairperson, Fernando Galan, contended the document ”represents half of what we would have loved to see”.

Galan noted that the European Parliament had originally proposed giving non-EU students the right to stay for 18 months post-study rather than nine, and underlined that only researchers will be allowed to bring family members with them and not students.

“The proposals from the European Parliament were way more advanced in rights for non-EU students, but still some of our postulates have been watered down,” he said.

“We hope that this directive is only a first step in ensuring that Europe attracts more non-EU students to its campuses and encourage and increase internationalisation”.

Due to separate protocols allowing for exemptions from some EU mandates, the UK, Ireland and Denmark are not bound by the new rules.

Member states have two years to implement the changes, though the ESU has called on governments to bring them in sooner.

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