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UK: May plans to make all non-EU grads return home

UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, delivered a pre-Christmas body blow to the UK international education industry, unveiling plans to force all non-EU graduates to return home even if they intend to remain in the UK and switch to a work visa category.

To reduce student migration to zero, the Home Secretary wants non-EU students to return home and re-enter if they obtain employment

Shreya Paudel, International Students Officer at the NUS, slammed these latest plans as "discriminatory, counter-intuitive and impractical"

May’s rationale is to reduce foreign student migration to zero, as there would be a requirement to apply for a new visa in a student’s home country, even if graduates were successful in securing a job in the window between ending their studies and officially graduating.

Her plans are clearly a pre-election statement of intent and would only have a chance of being enacted if the Conservative party is re-elected in May.

“It is baffling that a senior government minister would risk undermining an £18 billion export industry by publicly floating such a damaging policy in this way”

Nonetheless, they send out a damning message and would be a major impediment to the UK’s ability to attract foreign students.

The mooted plans have already drawn scorn from stakeholders in the industry, concerned about the attractiveness of the UK compared with other destinations.

“It is baffling that a senior government minister would risk undermining an £18 billion export industry and our country’s reputation abroad by publicly floating such a damaging policy in this way,” commented Graham Able, Chair of Exporting Education (ExEd), which represents many private and independent operators.

A Lib Dem spokesperson was quoted as saying “such a blunt instrument” to control immigration would not find favour from the Conservatives’ coalition partners.

May also is keen for institutions to lose their right to recruit if non-EU students do not exit the country after studying – extending the requirements of institutions beyond teaching to post-study border control.

Able pointed out that this second suggestion “would turn academic administrators into border police and divert precious resources away from the central purpose of academic institutions, which is to educate”.

With the demise of the Post-Study Work (PSW) route – which had allowed students two years to seek employment but now allows only a few months – already being broadly cited as a major impediment to the UK’s appeal, May’s plans will further depress those keen to protect the industry.

Indeed, one prominent scientist, Professor Stephen Curry from Imperial College London, promptly wrote that May’s pronouncement has directly undermined the new Science and Innovation strategy also announced this month.

International students themselves have already complained of feeling tainted by suspicion

International students themselves have already complained of feeling tainted by suspicion (for example, at a recent Student Visas conference).

Shreya Paudel, International Students Officer at the NUS, slammed these latest plans as “discriminatory, counter-intuitive and impractical”.

Paudel was a student negatively impacted by the abrupt end to PSW rights offered to international students, which were axed while he was studying.

He referred to a number of other policy changes that have happened, such as a healthcare levy and landlord requirements to check migrant status.

“Almost all of these [changes] have come along in the last few years,” he wrote. “Is this coincidental? Or is it a systematic attempt to reduce the number of non-EU students, because of the rise of an anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK? I believe it’s the latter.”

An inquiry into the closure of PSW was commissioned this year. In its submission, the British Council claimed that “the UK’s market share is being challenged as never before” and that limited PSW opportunity is a major reason for a decline in non-EU enrolments.

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