In surprise news, ministers are considering extending the work hour limit from 20 hours per week, with the government debating whether to increase the limit to 30 hours or to scrap it completely, according to a report from The Times.
The idea aligns closely with policy in Australia and in Canada and comes as the prime minister is focused on ensuring economic growth.
In a clear clash of policy priorities, the news comes in the same week that it has been reported that home secretary Suella Braverman is touting plans to reduce the graduate route visa from the current two years down to six months of post-study work.
Regarding extended work rights, one source told The Times that ministers were looking at “what more we can do to remove barriers and encourage students to work” as part of a range of ideas being considered to tackle rising job vacancies.
The UK is facing a worker shortage, exacerbated by Brexit and higher levels of economic inactivity after the pandemic.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has signalled his intent to boost the workforce in order to help tackle inflation as high vacancy levels drive up wages.
A spokesperson from the department for work and pensions told The PIE it is “considering a range of factors to address inactivity”.
Further details on this will be set out in due course, they explained, adding, “We wouldn’t comment on speculation ahead of the completion of the Workforce Participation review.”
“What more we can do to remove barriers and encourage students to work”
As for reducing the graduate route, this proposal has been sharply criticised by university stakeholders, as well as some within Braverman’s party.
The department for education and the department for international trade are both thought to be against the idea of reducing the length of the post-study work visa.
Former home secretary Priti Patel publicly praised the graduate route at an event on Wednesday, saying she is a “great believer” in the scheme.
Last week, the APPG for international students wrote to ministers urging them to make changes to “maximise” the potential of the UK’s education exports sector.
The Home Office must be included in cross-departmental engagement to “truly make the international education strategy a success”, the letter said, adding that the department has a “key part to play” in ensuring the UK’s student visa system remains competitive with other English-speaking markets.
The Times also reported that Braverman is likely to be wary of any measures that could make student visas more attractive internationally. In addition, it said the Home Office could use the plan to extend work hours during studies as a bargaining chip to push through other proposals to reduce international student numbers.
In a statement, chief executive of the Russell Group, Tim Bradshaw said “mixed messages” from the government “undermine our reputation as one of the best places in the world to study and is already deterring students from countries like India where the government is trying to forge stronger economic links”.
“Encouraging international students to work in restaurants while they study, but forcing them to go home again as soon as they’ve graduated with degrees our economy so badly needs is the very definition of short-sightedness,” he said.
Director of Universities UK International, Jamie Arrowsmith, said while it is “good to see” the UK government recognises the skills and expertise international students have to help the UK economy, the body has concerns with the proposals to allow them to work longer hours.
“We are concerned with the proposal to allow international students to work longer hours alongside their studies,” he said in a statement.
“This could severely impact on the wellbeing and learning experience of students if not properly thought through. Where similar caps have been lifted in other countries, significant concerns have been raised by student groups and universities.
“Government would be better advised to maintain a competitive post-study work offer and immediately recommit to the Graduate route”
“If the government really wants to ensure that the UK’s almost 680,000 international students can make the best possible contribution to our economy, they would be better advised to maintain a competitive post-study work offer and immediately recommit to the Graduate route – and to put an end to recent speculation that it might be limited or removed entirely.”
Allowing graduates to stay and work in the UK for two, or three years for PhD students, “offers the opportunity to apply their skills and learning”, he continued.
“[That] would be a better way of helping to address the country’s longer-term skills needs,” Arrowsmith added.
In 2022, both Australia and Canada scrapped the limit on the number of hours foreign students could work in the countries to help address labour shortages. Australia’s Morrison government announced the policy in January 2022, saying it would both fill “critical workforce shortages”, as well as entice international students back to the country.
Later in the year, the newly-elected Labor government in Australia announced that the cap would be reinstated from July 2023, as it sought to find the “right balance between work and study”. Some have linked the policy to a rise in “non-genuine” student applications.
Canada also extended work rights from November 2022 to support sectors facing labour shortages.
Stakeholders in both countries have welcomed the “choice and flexibility” extended work hours offer students, but have also raised concerns that it “has the potential to distract students from their studies”.