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Braverman announces student visa crackdown

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Government to ban most international students from bringing family members to the UK

Home secretary ​​Suella Braverman has announced a crackdown on international students bringing family members to the UK, with all but those on postgraduate research programmes to be banned from bringing dependants from January 2024.

In a written statement on 23 May, Braverman said an “unexpected rise” in the number of dependants accompanying overseas students to the UK meant reform was necessary in light of a government commitment to lower overall migration levels.

According to Office for National Statistics data published in November, net migration in the year to June 2022 was at more than 500,000—higher than pre-Brexit volumes. ONS data due out this week are expected to show a continued rise.

Braverman’s proposals would remove the right for international students to bring dependants, unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes, and remove the ability for international students to switch out of the student route into work routes before their studies have been completed.

There will also be a review of the maintenance requirements for students and dependants, and the government will take steps to “clamp down on unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications to sell immigration not education”.

Braverman said ministers will aim to better communicate immigration rules to the higher education sector and to international students, and will implement “more targeted enforcement activity” to ensure visa compliance.

“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 government’s commitment to lower net migration was made,” Braverman said.

“Our intention is to work with universities over the course of the next year to design an alternative approach that ensures the best and the brightest students can bring dependants to our world-leading universities, while continuing to reduce net migration. We will bring in this system as soon as possible, after thorough consultation with the sector and key stakeholders.”

‘A significant contribution’

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said attracting the top students from around the world “isn’t just good for our universities—it’s essential for our economy and building vital global relationships.

“But the number of family members being brought to the UK by students has risen significantly. It is right we are taking action to reduce this number while maintaining [a] commitment to our International Education Strategy, which continues to enrich the UK’s education sector and make a significant contribution to the wider economy,” she added.

The International Education Strategy aimed to see UK universities educating 600,000 overseas students by 2030. The target was reached last year.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, said the announcement provided “some clarity for students and universities after many months of rumour and speculation”, but he warned there could be unwanted side-effects to the proposals.

“While the vast majority of students will be unaffected by proposals that limit the ability to be accompanied by dependants, more information is needed on the programmes that are in scope before a proper assessment of the impact can be made,” he said.

“Yet we do know that any changes are likely to have a disproportionate impact on women and students from certain countries. We therefore urge the government to work with the sector to limit and monitor the impact on particular groups of students—and on universities, which are already under serious financial pressures.”

Jo Grady, University and College Union general secretary, described the proposals as “a vindictive move from a government captured by anti-immigration sentiment”.

“Those who choose to study in the UK, no matter where they are from in the world, bring huge value to our society and deserve the right to live alongside their loved ones whilst they study. Instead, they are being treated with contempt,” she said.

“It is clear that deep concern is already being felt across the sector as to just how damaging the package of measures announced by the home secretary could be to the pipeline of international talent coming to the UK. This is another deeply shameful moment for a government hell-bent on attacking migrants and undermining our universities.”

International praise

The news comes as several Conservative politicians extolled the virtues of international students in the UK as the Home Office prepares to announce a visa crackdown.

Tory peer and former universities minister Jo Johnson said the economic benefit that international students generate for the UK was “just one part of the immense value that international education brings to the nation”.

“International student flows are critical to the UK’s competitiveness as a knowledge economy and boost our soft power across the globe,” he said.

Chris Skidmore, MP for Kingswood and another former universities minister, said overseas students “contribute immensely to the UK economically, socially, academically and culturally”.

Writing on Twitter, Skidmore said that removing students from immigration figures was the “easiest and fastest way to reduce net migration”.

“They aren’t migrants—the vast majority leave after their studies, they subsidise home student fees and research, and spend over £40 billion in local economies,” he said.

Johnson and Skidmore spoke at the relaunch of We Are International, a joint ​​campaign by Universities UK International, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the British Universities’ International Liaison Association, London Higher, and the British Council.

Meanwhile, speaking on LBC Radio, Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman said any crackdown on the number of international students coming to the UK was “a terrible idea” given they contribute tens of billions of pounds to the UK economy.

"It will get the numbers down, but I would suggest we don’t want to get these numbers down,” he said. “Nearly all [international students] go home afterwards with warm thoughts of the UK. Some of them stay here and then they tend to work in the public sector, filling in holes where there’s a gap.”

Further response

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland:

“After months of speculation, we have clarity from the UK government. We welcome the commitment to retaining the post-study work visa which benefits both students and employers. It also helps retain talent in Scotland which is critical given our demographic challenges.

“Less welcome is the decision to restrict visas to the dependents of international students below PhD level. It will be very important that the UK government works with the sector, across the UK, to first understand and then reflect on the likely impact of these changes on universities and their wider communities.

“International students make an invaluable contribution to Scotland, not just our universities and the wider economy. Last week, research showed the economic benefit of international students in Scotland is £4.75 billion and there exists broad public and political support for international students coming to Scotland.

“Ultimately, talent knows no borders. We want to have the sharpest, most inquisitive minds learning, teaching and researching here in Scotland. That benefits not just their university, but the nation and the world as a whole. International students need to know they are always welcome in Scotland.”

Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of the University Alliance:

“The UK’s universities are world-leading, with recent analysis revealing that international students boost our economy by £41.9 billion. It is therefore extremely disappointing to see changes to the Student Route—a highly compliant visa route that has widespread public support. The UK’s economy benefits enormously from international students, even when accounting for those that bring family members with them.

“As our global competitors raise their ambitions, the UK cannot afford to be complacent. The uncertainty created by these changes is a needless gift to our international rivals, most of whom do not count international students in their migration figures.”

 A version of this article appeared in Research fFortnight