UK: Foreign students face curbs on jobs and visas

The Home Secretary has signalled that she intends to clamp down on the number of international students entering the UK labour market when they graduate and dramatically cut the number of pre-tertiary students coming to the country to study.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said: "We will have to take action across all routes to entry - work visas, student visas, family visas - and break the link between temporary routes and permanent settlement."

On Tuesday she announced that the number of skilled migrants from outside Europe was to be capped at 21,700 a year from April 2011, but within that there would be a category of 1,000 "people with exceptional talent" to ease fears that scientists, academics and artists would be denied entry by the cap.

In a sign the government may be divided on the question of how to curb immigration without damaging the interests of universities, May has effectively delayed a decision on how to limit visas for non-EU foreign students by announcing that she will launch a consultation before the end of the year on adjusting the immigration points system to manage the in-flow more tightly.

May said: "While we will protect our world-class universities, we want suitably qualified students with the genuine desire to study to come to our country. We must also have a more robust system to ensure that students leave the country at the end of their legitimate stay."

Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), said if implemented the restriction on foreign graduates taking UK jobs would make the UK less attractive for those students who wished to gain work experience immediately after their degree. But in the current climate it had not been easy anyway for graduates to obtain jobs and many had chosen to go home to look for opportunities.

He said the impact on universities of attempts to restrict student visas would depend on whether progression to university via foundation and access courses would be protected.

"If not it could do substantial damage to pathways into higher education," he said.

The policy response to the consultation will form part of a package of measures being developed to reduce annual net migration from 196,000 to 'tens of thousands' by 2015.

Students currently account for two-thirds of migrants entering the UK each year, but May suggested the emphasis was likely to be on restricting pre-tertiary level students.

"People imagine students to be those who come here for a few years to study at university and then go home - that is not always the case," May said. "We estimate that nearly half of all students coming here from abroad are coming to study a course below degree level where levels of compliance with immigration requirements are not high enough."

She said she wanted to ensure students and education providers were of a high quality. The Home Office said that by introducing a system that is more selective and more robust, the government was aiming to stamp out abuse while continuing to attract top students to the UK's top universities.

But John Mountford, International Director of the Association of Colleges, said using the immigration cap was the wrong approach. The government should simply implement current policy and clamp down on 'chip shop providers'.

He said international students studying A-level or equivalent greatly benefited UK higher education - a significant number went on to study at degree level and in doing so subsidised UK universities and UK students.

"Cutting them out will ultimately mean that UK citizens will have to pay even more for a university degree. Students turned away from the UK will study in America or elsewhere in Europe and our reputation as an international educator of excellence will be severely damaged."

Scott said although there was so far an absence of details on what was being proposed, the mere talk of cutting foreign student numbers and restricting opportunities for working may make the UK seem less attractive to international students.

The consultation, which will run for eight weeks, will seek views on a range of measures to reduce the number of students who can come into the UK, such as:

* For adult students, to refocus on allowing entry for higher-level courses and those offered by 'Highly Trusted' sponsors.
* Introducing tougher entry criteria, such as for English language competence.
* Ensuring that students wishing to extend their studies show evidence of academic progression.
* Limiting students' entitlements to work and sponsor dependants.
* Improving the accreditation process for education providers, alongside more rigorous inspections.

According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the most recently available figures, for 2008-09 show the number of international students studying full-time at publicly funded higher education institutions was 306,000, of whom 92,000 were EU students and 214,000 were non-EU students.

In addition there were thought to be around 50,000 EU and non-EU students in publicly funded further education institutions and between 150,000 and 200,000 students in the private sector, including those studying English language for more than six months, vocational training, pre-university preparation (including A-level study) and higher education.

Any restrictions on the numbers of higher education students would put added pressure on university finances - in the wake of 40% budget cuts announced last month - as well as the economy.

Non-EU students pay the entire costs of tuition themselves, with fees typically between £8,000 and £15,000 (US$12,600 to US$23,700). For most universities these fees represent between 10% and 30% of their income.

An estimated £2.5 billion is earned by universities from these fees alone, and another £2.5 billion is spent by such students on goods and services in local communities, adding £5 billion to the economy in total. When income to private sector colleges is added the value to the economy of international students is thought to be £8.5 billion.