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Migration Advisory Committee recommends “tweaks” to Tier 4 student visa rules


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Immigration lawyers helping sponsoring universities navigate the complexities of the Points Based System naturally have an economic interest in overseas students — but then so does the rest of the nation. That is the uncompromising conclusion of the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), whose experts find that “there is no doubt that international students offer positive economic benefit” in a report released today. But the influential team of economists stops short of recommending to the government that it significantly liberalise the student and post-study visa rules.

This is despite its review of the evidence finding that international students offer “clear economic benefit… widely spread around the UK”. Much of their £20 billion net economic contribution flows into the public finances, with the committee citing one study showing that EU students contribute an annual £3,000 per head more to the Treasury than the average home student , and non-EU students £5,000 more. Those home students tend to like having foreign classmates. “On balance”, the committee says, “the evidence suggests that the benefits of international students outweigh any negative impacts on the educational experience of domestic students”. Nor is there any evidence of overseas students causing problems to local communities.

The policy recommendations will be of most interest to lawyers. For starters, the report endorses the status quo, urging that there be no cap on the number of student visas issued under Tier 4. It notes that many universities “do not trust the government” when it denies that there are plans for a cap but urges both government and the higher education sector to work together to increase international student numbers. The report also backs the current rules on dependents, and on how many part-time hours people can work while on a student visa.

The MAC then recommends some tweaks to the current system:

  • The window for applying for a switch from Tier 4 to Tier 2 should be widened, making it possible as soon as a job offer has been made, even if this is many months before the proposed start date
  • The period of leave to remain in the UK after studies have ended should be increased to six months for all Master’s-level students, in line with the current Tier 4 pilot
  • PhD students should automatically be given one year’s leave to remain after completion of their studies, replacing the existing Doctoral Extension scheme
  • Tier 4 students should be entitled to switch to a Tier 2 visa in the two years after graduation, even if they leave the UK in the meantime, on the same terms as those who stay in the UK (no Resident Labour Market Test, no Tier 2 cap and no Immigration Skills Charge).

But it rejected calls for a more radical overhaul of the post-study options for international students:

We do not recommend a separate post-study work visa, though our proposals on automatic leave to remain after course completion have some of the same effect. We know this is something that will disappoint the [higher education] sector, but a longer period in-country would likely increase demand from international students but without ensuring that graduating students are in appropriately skilled work… An extended post-study period of leave, with no conditions tied to it, risks adding to low-skilled migration and encouraging institutions to market themselves based on post-study work opportunities rather than the quality of the education they offer.

In other words, the perceived risk is that “a post-study work regime could become a pre-work study regime, as MAC chairperson Alan Manning puts it in the foreword.

The MAC doesn’t think much either of the mooted exclusion of international students from the official net migration target. This “would be difficult technically and, if done correctly, would make almost no difference to the net migration figures” anyway. Insofar as the UK suffers from an image problem among potential students in places like India, “we think it more likely comes from the existence of the target itself than the inclusion of students in that target”.

The university sector is extremely disappointed by these conclusions. Universities UK, the umbrella body, says that “growth will only be possible if we have an immigration system that encourages talented international students to choose the UK” over competing countries.

Comment: Nichola Carter, Carter Thomas Solicitors

“The MAC’s report tinkers around the edges of the issue rather than providing a basis for the introduction of bold new measures. I’ve worked with a vast number of universities, independent schools and other education providers since the Points Based System first began and my experience is that the sector’s approach to immigration compliance is extremely strong. Tier 4 sponsors typically have to make a significant investment in staff and systems to ensure that sponsorship is offered only to those who have been carefully assessed as having a genuine intention to study in the UK. Then there’s the ongoing obligation to comply with a multitude of duties placed on them by the Home Office.

The Government and the MAC agree that the majority of international students leave the UK after their course ends and that there is no risk to immigration control posed by those who do stay to take up employment, establish businesses or pursue further studies. The recommendations by the MAC, which amount to the continuation of a fairly restrictive approach rather than a bold new approach to post-study work opportunities and the removal of international students from the net migration targets, is disappointing”.

Also turned down are suggestions that the salary threshold for graduates be lowered for jobs outside London (regional differences are not big enough to warrant it) or to discriminate in favour of EU students after Brexit.

We do not, though, see any upside for the sector in leaving the EU: any barriers to student mobility are likely to have a negative impact.

This report is in one sense a warm-up for the MAC’s main event later this month: a report on the economic impact of EU migrants and recommendations for post-Brexit immigration policy. Some hints on its direction of travel were in the committee’s interim conclusions. The full report is due for release on 18 September and will play a big role in the government’s approach.


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CJ McKinney

CJ McKinney

CJ McKinney is a specialist on immigration law and policy. Formerly the editor of Free Movement, you will find a lot of articles by CJ here on this website! Twitter: @mckinneytweets.