It is time to recognise that there is a serious problem in the UK, in the treatment of international students. Indeed, after paying unregulated fees through the roof, non-EU international students face an increasingly impossible situation upon graduation. Either we are able to find an employer, willing to sponsor our stay in the UK, in the few months directly after graduation, or leave. This situation creates unnecessary hardships for international students who are often forced to sever personal relationships and abandon life long dreams, while also causing real reputational damage for the sector as a whole.
So how did we get here? In the past, we had access to a Tier-1 post-study work visa. This allowed us to remain in the UK and work for two years after our studies. In that period students had the time to find a job, progress, and be sponsored for a longer stay, or build up work experience before returning home. This system was modelled on the Scottish Fresh Talent in Scotland Scheme or FT in short. As its name suggests, FT recognised the positive effect of young, educated, skilled workers from around the world to the Scottish economy and wider society. This scheme was later incorporated in the UK wide Tier-1 system.
However, when the Conservative party entered government in 2010, it did so on an especially xenophobic platform. It vowed to slash immigration figures to ‘tens of thousands’ and achieve a situation where less than 100.000 immigrants enter in the UK every year. The government identified reducing the post-study stay of international students as a key area to achieve this so-called policy. In 2012, the government scrapped the post-study visa and made the achievement of a Tier-2 visa dependent on a £20,300 a year contract – an extremely unlikely reality in the current UK job market for all recent graduates, international or otherwise, especially if the job is based anywhere other than the Southeast of England.
We, as International students tend to find ourselves dependent on Tier-4 visas, which guarantee us only 4 months post-study stay, and sometimes less, during which we need to find an employer willing to sponsor us. Again, in the current job market, it is highly unrealistic to expect international students to find employers willing to hire international students and pay our extra visa costs in such a short period of time. Indeed, the previous Tier-1 system allowed us to work, develop a relation of trust with our employer and receive a sponsorship further down the line if we so wished. The current situation is a thinly veiled post-study expulsion order. A situation that can get even worse if the government implements the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)’s recent review of the Tier-2 system.
NUS represents over 500,000 international students in the UK. In 2014, we conducted an in-depth research alongside TEN – The Entrepreneur Network – into the perception of international students of post-study employment, a research which we are recommissioning as I write this. The research surveyed nearly 1600 international students. The subsequent report was then submitted to the All-Parliamentary Group on Migration Inquiry into the Post Study Work Route. The research found that 70% of participants responded that ‘they would like to seek some form of work experience’. Furthermore, ‘almost two thirds (62%) of those who do wish to seek employment in the UK as a graduate, gaining work experience in a particular industry is the main attraction’.
However, 32% of those surveyed ‘expected to earn below the £20,300 threshold [now £20,800] needed’ and ‘38% responded they would need more than four months … to find a suitable job after graduation’. Furthermore ‘Almost half (48%) of respondents were told they were ineligible to apply for a job because of their visa status.’ To add insult to injury, the report found that of all of the international students who did manage to find an adequate job in the short period after their studies ‘over a third (35%) had been rejected from a job after making an application because of it’.
The situation is therefore clear. Whether we wish to remain indefinitely or acquire work experience before going home, we are being pushed out of the job market. This is not – as the government or right wing press would have us believe – because of laziness or a wish to scrounge on benefits, but because the opportunity to work and contribute to the UK economy and society is being denied to us. In order to chase after catchy headlines and whip up populist xenophobic support for their policies, the Conservative government is shamelessly pushing thousands upon thousands of students out of the country. International students are charged outrageous fees by institutions since there is no cap on the fees we pay and we are expected to pack our bags and go the second we graduate. This cannot continue.
Unsurprisingly, 35% of respondents to the NUS survey said that ‘because of the work experience and employment opportunities available’ they would not recommend to others to study in the UK. This number reached 60% and 55%, for students from India and Pakistan respectively, and 47% for Nigerian students. It therefore follows that since the scrapping of the post-study visa in 2012, the number of international students in the UK is falling. Apart from students from China and Hong Kong, there has been a 4.5% decrease across the UK. These numbers cover more severe realities. For example in the same period there has been a 25% drop of Indian students and a 19% drop of Pakistani students studying in UK institutions.
These policies are not only unfair, discriminatory, and hurtful to the sector as a whole, there is also absolutely no evidence that focusing on international students has been an effective way to curb immigration numbers in the UK. In June 2015, official immigration numbers reached 336000. This is a situation that we should celebrate. More immigration enriches us as a society, furthers our societal horizons and deepens our knowledge of the world. As students we know that our campuses, our courses, our communal life is made considerably more relevant and positive through the experience of sharing it with people from all over the world. The same is true for our neighbourhoods and workplaces.
On February 15 2016, The Scottish Affairs Committee published a report calling for reform to visa rules for non-EU students studying in Scotland who wish to remain in the UK to work after their studies. The recommendations of the report are clear, Scotland desperately needs the Post-Study work visa back. Not only for the reputation of its Higher Education sector, but for its high-tech industries and most importantly, for its long-term economic growth. The International Students’ Campaign welcomes this report and urges the government to implement its recommendations, not only in Scotland, but across Britain. Post -Study Work options are necessary for Scotland and as a consequence, vital to the UK. Only last week it was revealed that the government’s squeeze on overseas students has led to numbers falling – down from 190,000 to 174,000 over the past year. This can have significant detrimental affects on tertiary education in the UK if the trend continues.
Especially now, as the UK government plays an active part in deepening the refugee crisis through intervention in the global south, whilst refusing to help alleviate people’s suffering by letting them enter the UK, the student movement has a special responsibility in fighting the state’s xenophobic policies. The reinstatement of a post-study visa, in line with the recommendations of the Scottish Affairs Committee but for the UK as a whole, is a small but important step in that direction. It is a way for all of us to make clear that international students are welcome here, that people in the UK – unlike their leaders – want an open and diverse society, free of discrimination and oppression.