Picking on international students is a backward step
- Balaji Ravichandran
- www.guardian.co.uk, Monday 28 March 2011 12.29 BST
The loss of the post-study work visa deprives Britain of the cultural and economic benefits that international students bring.
UK government has formally announced a host of newmeasures intended to reduce the number of overseas students, ie those from outside the European economic area, by 100,000. That’s roughly a 30% reduction in the number of people who come to these shores for educational and academic purposes. The most striking of these measures is the decision to scrap the post-study work route, through which those graduating from UK universities could stay temporarily to look for work. (The US and other countries have similar visa programmes aimed at retaining the most skilled international graduates in the host country.) Despite an overwhelming opposition to this move from universities and businesses, as reflected in an eight-week consultation, the government seems to have gone ahead with this drastic step.
The new measures have been interpreted in several publications as being far less severe than the government originally intended. Not the case. Starting next year, the post-study route will disappear entirely. Only those graduating with a job offer already in hand will be able to stay behind if, in addition, they satisfy the requirements for minimum salary, age and qualifications, and obtain the dreaded work permit. However, it has always been the case that those who have a job offer and a work permit, both of which are excruciatingly difficult to obtain for non-EEA graduates, could remain in the UK, and so this route is nothing new.
The central premise of the post-study work visa was that highly skilled graduates would be able to stay behind without a job offer, for a limited time, to obtain employment without the long and tedious hassle of having to obtain a work permit. In addition it let international students postpone worries about jobs and higher education until after graduation, and focus on their studies. But the government has gone ahead, making the UK a much less attractive option for study and work.
Those opposing any form of immigration from outside Europe will doubtless rejoice. But, in all frankness, international students have long suspected that it was only a matter of time. From biometric ID cards and anti-terrorism dossiers to Orwellian monitoring of students’ activities and compulsory submission of passports for regular examination by the authorities, a situation has been slowly implemented that makes international students feel vilified.
The target may be a small minority of bogus colleges, which were, incidentally, approved by the government, but every international student was apparently a potential illegal immigrant or a terrorist. The very incentives that made the UK a wonderful place to study and work are slowly disappearing. Ask anyone who tried to get into the country on a work or student visa, excepting, of course, the super-rich. A billionaire with no qualifications can come into the country and stay here forever, whereas the next Nureyev, Brendel or, Sebald, cannot.
Nor is this the only draconian step. Notwithstanding the economic contributions that a £25,000-a-year education can bring, and the indispensability of this contribution towards the sustenance of many university departments, students below graduate level will no longer be able to bring their spouses or partners, or study a second undergraduate or masters degree if they want to.
Most international students understand and sympathise with the need to curb immigration. But to target what was originally a wonderful and accessible system to cut out a very small proportion of the student influx is like burning down a cottage because of a few bed bugs. To an outsider, the UK no longer seems an intellectually vibrant environment that welcomes eager students with open arms, but a Kafkaesque fortress.
What’s so wrong about wanting to come here to study and even to stay behind and contribute, yes, economically, but more so culturally? What is so wrong about wanting to be British? And why is every potential newcomer seen as more a threat than an asset? At a time when countries such as Germany and Sweden are reaching out to international talent, offering incentives and scholarships to students from around the world and increasing the number of courses in English, Britain’s vision seems remarkably narrow and backward-looking.