In the slash and burn politics of immigration, it looks as though policy is now being made to meet quotas and sate the appetite of those who cloak their xenophobia in the Union Jack. But in the midst of most media outfits and politicians playing hard and loose with the truth, one point stuck out the most; the Government’s messaging towards international students is at best, mixed.
The Prime Minister is among the guilty. On his much-publicised trip to India, he stated that “after you’ve left a British university, if you can get a graduate-level job there is no limit to the amount of people who can stay and work, or the time that they can stay at work”. Close, but no cigar. Finding a job is nigh on impossible, particularly after the closure of the post-study work visa. Technically, any student who lands a job with a salary of at least £20,000, can stay in the UK. However, this simplifies the reality of the situation. To get said job, one must first find an employer willing to sponsor a migrant and their Tier 2 visa and to get to this stage there’s an inordinate amount of hoops through which all involved must jump.
For all David Cameron’s showboating in India recently, there are several reasons the number of International students coming to the UK has fallen by a fifth in the past year. Most have pointed fingers at the overhaul done to better define acceptable educational institutions and stricter conditions around attendance. However, it’s the lack of a real route into work for foreign students (available in most other countries) that might be quickening the decline.
It’s all well and good for the Government to beckon the cash-cow that is the International student population (Overseas students are estimated to bring over £8 billion per annum into the UK economy) , but their subsequent immigration policies, which severely limit any path to work or settlement, speaks volumes about how much they truly ‘value’ those coming to study in the UK. Many would be disinclined to move their entire life, often at great distance and expense, for a year or two, if there are no opportunities to settle, should they wish to do so.
When I came to the UK on a student visa in 2006, the path set out before me was clear. I knew I wanted to work toward permanent settlement and the immigration framework supported this as long as I followed the rules. Whilst in the middle of my post-study work visa in 2010, Tier 1 visas for migrants were radically changed, meaning I had to work with alacrity to ensure my current employer could sponsor me via a Tier 2 visa. Fortunately, they were able to do just that. The new framework indicated that I had to stay in the same type of job, and with the same employer, for five years, after which, I would be able to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. I accepted this even though I knew I’d be risking stagnation in my career and salary intake.
And then, last year, mutterings began about the Government wanting to redefine the Tier 2 visa track as ‘temporary’. They intended to cut the option to permanent settlement after 5 years, instead, only granting this to those who earned over £35,000 per year (something hard to do in certain parts of the UK, particularly when one has been precluded from any serious career changes). Despite opposition, those applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain from Tier 2 post 6 April 2016, must meet the new salary threshold. The constant moving of the goalposts and the unease it creates must contribute to why only 18% of those who entered as students in 2006 have managed to legally stay in the UK. Just a few weeks ago, more changes to Tier 2 were announced making it even harder to qualify for this visa after 6 April 2013.
The only message being received loud and clear is that the Government views immigration not in terms of Human Rights or economic investment, but as a means to score political points. They have invented shape-shifting immigration policies, intended to be fluid and ambiguous enough to thwart the very same people it claims to want to attract. Migrants are promised that as long as they follow the rules, there’s a way to stay. I should point out a lesson which my own excellent Mother (herself the daughter of a Scottish migrant to America) taught me when I was a child and one which the Government would do well to remember: when you change the rules in the middle of the game, that’s called cheating.