By Rebecca Partos
Since its 2010 formation, the UK’s coalition government has made reforms to migration in four policy areas: economic migration, international students, asylum and family migrants. Students have been the victims of particularly punitive measures – despite their substantial contribution to the UK in socio-economic terms. The governing parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, have long had opposing views on the issue of immigration. In opposition, these were distinct; in government, Conservative restrictiveness has quite overcome their junior partner’s (generally) liberal line. In two-and-a-half years of coalition government, international students have been regarded as conduits of abuse and potential security risks. Legislation means that applicants must now be better educated, endure greater bureaucracy and be subject to more restrictions to gain a student visa. However, this comes at a cost: tough legislation may discourage the motivated and intelligent from studying in the UK. Robert Ford of Manchester University sees students as victims of wider immigration policy. The coalition’s very low net migration demands are ‘forcing policymakers to consider costly and draconian policies to curtail forms of migration…[such as students], that the public support’.
Security risks and criminal behaviour
In the months before the election, the Conservatives had often associated non-EU students with criminal behaviour. (By contrast, the Liberal Democrats made little mention of international students.) Chris Grayling, the then Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, referred to ‘abuse of the student visa system’ and ‘a genuine security risk’ if reforms to the system were not made. Wide-ranging reforms would toughen up the rules on eligibility for student visas, which were seen as ‘the weakest link in the immigration system’. The proposals came weeks after media stories in which immigration controls were undermined by judges. More specifically, Home Office efforts to prevent students from extending their visas were overturned – even when immigrants had broken the rules. The Conservatives proposed a compulsory deposit of £6,000 to be repaid when the student returned to their home country as well as a ban on switching between student and work visas.
Despite the Conservatives’ pre-election preoccupation with international students, once the coalition was formed, there was little mention of students in the context of immigration. There is one reference in the coalition document: ‘We will introduce new measures to minimise abuse of the immigration system, for example via student routes’. In November, David Metcalf, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee said that student numbers would have to be severely cut if the coalition was to meet its target of cutting net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015. He said it was ‘not possible’ to reach this figure by limiting just work-related immigration, instead, family and student migration would make up around 80 per cent of the cut.
A major evaluation of the student visa system was announced in summer 2010. Figures showed that the number of non-EU students had increased by a third to more than 300,000 in 2010 in twelve months, with the influx partly explained by students bringing 31,000 dependants. The then immigration minister Damian Green referred to ‘significant abuse of the student route’ in the past, which made it necessary ‘to ensure that every student…is genuine’. Reforms were introduced in April 2011: successful applicants for a student visa would need a higher level of English language aptitude. However, many would have fewer rights such as the ability to work or to bring a dependent with them. Furthermore, those students who had completed their course would no longer have the Tier 1 (Post-study work) route open to them; they would need a skilled job offer from a sponsoring employer to remain in the country.
Rushed policies; heavy-handed implementation
Within months of the implementation of more restrictive measures for student visa applicants, the government’s policy was criticised for being ‘rushed’ and potentially damaging the economy to the tune of £3.6 billion. The Home Affairs Select Committee said the government was ‘failing to establish a solid evidence base’ before implementing policies. The government pressed on, and, by February 2012, it was restating its intention to restrict the inflow of international students and to put an emphasis on ensuring students leave when their visas expire. Green said the measure would ‘reinforc[e] the notion that study is for a limited period’. In May, UKBA quietly launched a programme – the sweetly-named Operation Rosehip – to target those students who were breaking their visa conditions.
The suspension of London Metropolitan University’s licence to sponsor visa applicants in August 2012 showed a government prepared to publicly – and quickly – come down hard on immigration ‘abuse’ before considering the impact of such an ill-timed decision. UKBA condemned the institution’s ‘systematic failure’ to confirm the immigration status of its international students; critics questioned the government’s conception of universities as enforcers of border security. Some two thousand students had their visas cancelled, giving them 60 days to find a place at a different university or leave the country. Although concerns were raised regarding reputational damage to the UK’s higher education sector, Cameron backed the ruling, stating that the university had ‘real abuses going on’ and such a dramatic move was necessary to control immigration. Within months, London Metropolitan won the right to appeal UKBA’s decision.
In September 2012, the media reported a hardening in public attitudes against international students, despite (or perhaps because of) the government’s heavy-handed stance. In a YouGov poll, 70% believed there should be a limit on the number of overseas students and the same percentage believed that students with poor English should be deported. At a Tory conference fringe-meeting, a Conservative backbencher condemned the handling of the London Metropolitan case as ‘clumsy’ and suggested such moves would discourage potential students. Home Secretary Theresa May argued that the higher education sector should not receive special treatment because of its economic value: ‘They [critics] argue that we need ever more students because education is our greatest export product… But to say importing more and more immigrants is our best export product is nothing but the counsel of despair’.
The weakest link? Goodbye (students)
The final months of 2012 saw a outbreak of stories in the national and local media about international students who were breaking their visa conditions, working illegally and attending ‘bogus’ colleges – sometimes all at once. In November, a major company was fined £115,000 for employing foreign students illegally. Their visas allowed them to work up to 20 hours a week during term time; many had been working between 50 and 70 hours a week for Tesco. In the same month, a report by the UKBA’s chief inspector, John Vine, found that thousands of international students had ‘overstayed’ because of the organisation’s negligence. A backlog of some 150,000 notifications about changes in students’ circumstances – such as failing to enrol or dropping out of their course – had meant that many individuals had (incorrectly) been given permission to stay in the UK. In December, a Leeds college was raided and staff arrested on suspicion of immigration offences. A spokesperson for UKBA said the college had been under investigation for charging foreign nationals – mostly from Pakistan – for admission to the UK under student visas.
Meanwhile, reports found that net migration had decreased by 25% in the past year, and that this was, in part, down to fewer international students. This was, various media sources reported, either down to individuals realising they could no longer get into the UK under false pretences or because potential students were being ‘put off’ by a toxic mix of tough new policies, negative publicity and unnecessary bureaucracy. (Conservative) Mayor of London Boris Johnson called on the UK government to make immigration rules more welcoming to international students (‘the global leaders of the future’). In an interview, he revealed that overseas students contribute £2.5 billion a year to the economy of London alone. Johnson called for UK immigration figures to exclude international students. It was reported that, months earlier, universities minister David Willetts had pushed for this, but the then immigration minister Damian Green had claimed that would be a ‘denial of reality’.
For now, students are easy targets for those government ministers who have an near obsession with migration figures. They are supported by bullish statements from UKBA, heavy-handed gestures and well-publicised ‘raids’ on colleges and companies. However, more pragmatic figures have realised that students may be the wrong target. Boris Johnson has referred to negative ‘mood music’ discouraging potential students and damaging UK universities. He called for the student visa debate to be shifted ‘away from numerical targets’ and ‘onto policy based on promoting jobs and growth’. Amid concern that there has been a 29% drop in student visas (or 70,000 fewer) issued from the year to September 2012, think-tanks have warned of a ‘significant economic cost’. A decrease is likely to continue, despite efforts by those such as David Willetts, who has run advertising campaigns to reassure potential students. The coalition government must decide whether international students are, at worst security risks and opportunists, or, at best, economic investments and even cash cows to fund struggling UK universities.
Rebecca Partos is a 1+3 ESRC-funded doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex. Her research looks at the development of the Conservative Party’s immigration policy in the post-war era. Areas of interest include the politics of immigration; political parties and policymaking processes; British politics and political history. She has an MSc in Social Research Methods.