Earlier this week, Suella Braverman, the secretary of state for the home department of the UK, announced some significant immigration policy changes which will have an impact on students from India who are planning to go to her country for higher education.
One of the steps that UK’s home secretary announced is removing the right for international students to bring dependants unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes.
According to the announcement, immigration statistics of the UK highlighted an unexpected rise in the number of dependants coming to the UK alongside international students. Around 136,000 visas were granted to dependants of sponsored students in the year ending December 2022, a more than eight-fold increase from 16,000 in 2019, when the UK government’s commitment to lower net migration was made.
“The international education strategy plays an important part in supporting the economy through the economic contribution students can bring to the UK, but this should not be at the expense of our commitment to the public to lower overall migration and ensure that migration to the UK is highly skilled and therefore provides the most benefit. The proposals we are announcing today will ensure that we can continue to meet our international education strategy commitments, while making a tangible contribution to reducing net migration to sustainable levels. The terms of the graduate route remain unchanged,” Braverman announced.
“The government will seek to continue to strike the balance between reducing overall net migration with ensuring that businesses have the skills they need and we continue to support economic growth. Those affected by this package will predominantly be dependants of students who make a more limited contribution to the economy than students or those coming under the skilled worker route, minimising the impact on UK growth.” Experts feel that the change affecting dependants will come into effect in January 2024, though the details have not yet been announced by the UK government.
Sakshi Bhatia Chopra, an Indian student from Chandigarh, who is now studying a masters course in international development at UK’s University of Bristol, feels that while on one hand the British government is trying to cut down the burden on government-linked public services such as the National Health Service (NHS), through the curb on dependents of international students; there is also a focus on the economic benefits that international students bring. including their fees. “Dependents of students are sometimes perceived as competing for jobs with the local people besides being a burden on UK’s public services,” Bhatia Chopra said. She added that the negative aspect of this move for Indian students would be the separation of families. “When Indian students, who are around 30-32, go to a foreign country for a masters course, the right to take their dependents with them will affect their decision in choosing the country where they would like to go. Besides, migrants bring different cultural aspects with them and are very important for the diversity of global classrooms,” she added.
Commenting on these announcements, Karan Bilimoria, member of the British House of Lords and president, UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), a national advisory body that serves the interest of international students, told the Times of India: “It will definitely affect some international students who, if they cannot bring their dependents with them, even for a one-year master’s programme will choose another country.” He, however, added that it is a relief that the two-year post graduate work visa has not been reduced. “We are in a global race particularly, competing with the USA, Australia, and Canada. Australia for example, now offers a minimum of four years post-graduation work visa, double of what we offer,” Bilimoria added.
According to him, the elephant in the room is the UK government continuing to insist on treating international students as immigrants and including them in the net migration figures. “They are creating a rod for their own back, if they exclude international students from the net migration figures, with internationals students’ numbers growing rapidly over the past couple of years, since the reintroduction of the two-year post graduate work visa, you will have more students coming to the UK than leaving. The estimate is that the net migration figures would reduce by over 300,000 if international students were excluded from the net migration figures,” he said.
Bilimoria, who is the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students, feels that the UK should exclude international students from their net migration figuresand treat them as temporary migrants; as is being done by the USA and Australia. “Instead of unnecessarily creating a fear of migration, the UK government should instead be celebrating international students who now make up 18% of British universities income. The latest figures released earlier this month, show that international students boost the UK economy by 42 billion pounds every year and every 1 in 11 non-EU international student, generate 1 million pounds of net economic impact in the UK.”
The UK government’s decision to restrict international students from bringing family members with them, except for those studying postgraduate research courses, is likely to have an impact on Indian students who choose the UK for higher education, feels Saurabh Arora, CEO, University Living, a company focussed on student accommodation around the world. “Many Indian students value the opportunity to have their family members accompany them during their studies as it provides emotional support and a sense of familiarity in a foreign country. This policy change may deter some Indian students from pursuing education in the UK, especially those who rely on family support,” he said.
Arora feels that the absence of family members may create challenges related to emotional well-being and adjusting to a new environment. “Having family support can significantly ease the transition and help students feel more comfortable in their new surroundings. Additionally, the financial burden may increase as students may need to bear the full cost of accommodation, living expenses, and other related costs without the potential income contribution from their family members,” he said. The restriction on bringing family members could also impact the accommodation and housing needs of Indian students in the UK. “Typically, when families accompany students, they often seek larger accommodation or consider options suitable for families. With this restriction, Indian students may opt for smaller and more affordable housing options, such as shared accommodations or university-provided accommodations. This shift in preferences may have implications for the demand and availability of different types of housing in university towns and cities,” Arora said.
Some of the other measures announced in the package of immigration policy changes earlier this week, include removing the ability for international students to switch out of the student route into work routes before their studies have been completed; reviewing the maintenance requirements for students and dependants and steps to clamp down on unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications to sell immigration not education.
“The restriction on switching to the skilled worker route until completing the programme could be seen as a potential drawback for international students, including Indian students. This policy prevents students from seamlessly transitioning into employment opportunities in the UK upon completing their studies. It may pose challenges for those who wish to explore job prospects or gain work experience in the UK immediately after graduation,” says Arora. However, he feels that this restriction may be aimed at ensuring that students complete their academic programmes before pursuing employment opportunities, which aligns with the primary purpose of their student visas.