UK immigration policy is making international students feel "unwelcome", says House of Lords committee

Out-Law News | 15 Apr 2014 | 2:45 pm | 3 min. read

An "unprecedented" 10% fall in the number of international science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students coming to the UK to study can partly be attributed to the UK's "unwelcoming" immigration reforms, a House of Lords committee has found.

Concluding its inquiry into student numbers, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee called on the government to rethink its "contradictory" immigration policy, in particular recent changes which limit the time students have to find work after graduating. Among the recommendations in its report on the inquiry was removing students, who it said made up the majority of non-EU immigrants, from official net migration figures.

"When we really need to send the message that international STEM students will get a warm welcome in the UK, they're getting the cold shoulder and heading elsewhere," said committee chair Lord Krebs. "We've seen over the last few years how international student numbers have fallen dramatically, in particular from India. As a result we're missing out on the talent, the economic and cultural contribution that international students bring when they come here to study, and our competitors are reaping the rewards."

"The overwhelming evidence that we received led us to conclude that changes to the immigration rules in this country have played a direct part in putting overseas students off from choosing the UK. The rules are seen as too complex and subject to endless changes, the visa costs are not competitive, and the rules relating to work after study are so limiting that prospective students are heading to the US, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. We are calling on the government to overhaul its immigration policies," he said.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said that there was "no clear evidence" to support any argument that the UK's immigration rules were deterring international students.

Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in January showed that the number of non-EU students of all subjects enrolling in UK universities fell for the first time between 2011/12 and the last academic year, 2012/13. Although the figures only showed a 1% drop in numbers overall, this was only because more students arriving from China and Hong Kong masked a 25% reduction in the number of Indian students and a 19% reduction in the number of Pakistani students arriving in the UK in a single academic year.

The government has stated that it intends to cut net migration - the figure calculated by subtracting the number of people leaving the UK to live or work in the UK for longer than 12 months - to the "tens of thousands". However, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is targeting increasing the number of international students in UK higher education by 15-20% over the next five years.

The committee's headline recommendation to "resolve this contradiction" was for the government to remove students from the net migration figures or, "at the very least", to "clearly state what proportion of the sum is students" in order to exclude students for policy-making purposes. "Including students, who bring so much to the UK economy, in the net migration figures, sees them used as a feedstock for an all too often highly politicised and sometime toxic debate over immigration," the report said.

Although the committee heard evidence that it was the "perception" of the rules rather than the rules themselves that had contributed to the fall in student numbers, it concluded that there were "difficulties beyond simply those of perception". In particular, it highlighted the abolition of the Tier 1 post-study work visa in April 2013, which allowed non-EEA graduated who had studied in the UK to stay in the country and seek work for a further two years after completing their studies.

"Allowing just four months for a student to find work after graduation is more or less tantamount to telling overseas students they'd be better off going to study elsewhere," said committee chair Lord Krebs.

The report found that this four month period was both far too short and compared very unfavourably with conditions in some of the UK's major competitors. For example, STEM graduates could stay in the US for up to 29 months in some circumstances, while Australian graduates could remain in the country for between 18 months and four years depending on the qualification obtained.

"The UK's offer to prospective international students remains a good one; it is founded on academic excellence, but it has been diminished by perceived and real barriers so that the overall offer is not as competitive as it needs to be," the report said.