Full details of the planned policy change, to be implemented from January 2024, are yet to be revealed as the official statement of changes has not yet been published.
Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, responded to the announcement, highlighting the concerns, saying, “While the vast majority of students will be unaffected by proposals that limit the ability to be accompanied by dependents, more information is needed on the programs that are in scope before a proper assessment of the impact can be made.
“We do know that any changes are likely to have a disproportionate impact on women and students from certain countries.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank, also voiced his concerns on social media, indicating that he had seen unpublished figures suggesting as many as 69% of students who bring dependants to the UK were women.
Hillman tweeted, saying, “There’s a gender angle to the new announcement on international students, which is likely to get missed. A large majority of the international students who bring dependants to the UK are women.”
A survey from FindAUniversity of 869 prospective international master’s students in March and April found that prospective female students are consistently more likely to be put off by the removal of dependent visas.
The percentage of prospective female international students saying they’d be less likely to study in the UK if their dependants could not join them rises with the age of the respondents, the survey found.
“It’s concerning that the government may not have thought of these potential effects in designing its policy. It’s also possible that our data may understate the impact of this change, given that responses were collected before the policy was confirmed,” director of Audience & Editorial at FindAUniversity, Mark Bennett, said.
“Whatever someone’s views on migration, it’s surely clear that UK higher education opportunities should be equally open to all students; excluding women who must choose between the benefits of a UK master’s degree and leaving their children behind for a year or more cannot be the intention or effect of this policy.”
In the past year, The PIE News has reported on the increase in dependant visa applications connected to the student route visa, with Nigeria being identified as the largest source market for family-orientated applications.
The introduction of the graduate route visa, along with a deliberate UK higher education strategy to attract and retain graduate talent from Commonwealth countries, has driven demand from mature applicants seeking career opportunities in sectors such as healthcare.
“This policy will be detrimental to all, but especially women”
Rebecca Fielding, founder of immigration consultants Grad Consult, also joined the debate on social media, saying “female international students [will be] much less likely to travel if they have children. This policy will be detrimental to all, but especially women.”
Mature, female applicants, particularly from Muslim countries are highly likely to have family responsibilities.
Dependants are currently classified as a spouse, partner or child, but not extended family members such as siblings or parents.
UKCISA provides detailed advice for students currently looking to bring dependants with them when studying in the UK. It details the essential financial requirements involved in an application, including proof of maintenance funds, health surcharge and rights to work.
Policy officer for UKCISA, Iona Murdoch, expressed her personal frustration on Twitter, saying “No words properly express how I feel about this policy.
“It is going to seriously affect the opportunities for women”
“Not only is it a knee jerk reaction to current data that hasn’t settled and a lack of forecasting, it is also going to seriously affect the opportunities for women to come to this supposedly welcoming country and study.”
William Burns, regional manager at Loughborough University, also spoke to The PIE to highlight the impact for sponsored students from GCC countries.
“The UK government must consider exemptions for fully sponsored students coming to the UK for masters study,” said Burns. “While not impossible, it is difficult to imagine female masters students from Saudi Arabia coming to the UK without their spouses. And so their freedom to study here would be heavily restricted almost immediately.”
Saudi Arabia provides the largest source of fully sponsored students to the UK from the Middle East, with many enrolling at the UK’s top universities. It is common for GCC governments to provide full maintenance stipends for spouses of students studying abroad.
Saudi Arabia is heavily investing in educational opportunities for women as part of its Vision 2030 economic planning with the aim of driving female participation in the jobs market to 30%.
UPDATE 12:00GMT May 15: This article has been updated to include data from FindAUniversity.