International students feel left in the lurch over UK visa changes

Phon from Thailand has just completed the first part of a degree in architecture at a university in London, her fees paid by a Thai government scholarship. But with changes to the UK’s student visa regime, in particular an end to the right to stay on for up to two years after graduation to seek employment, her future hangs in the balance.

Phon (not her real name) says she cannot continue to the second part of the seven-year architectural qualification without spending a year in a work environment. But new visa rules, effective since 6 April, state that only those in jobs earning more than £20,000 (US$31,000) can stay on.

“For students of architecture, employers don’t usually pay that much – it’s more like £15,000 and some architecture companies specifically say they only want applicants with the right to work in the European Union [who are not subject to immigration rules],” Phon told University World News, adding that she had so far had no replies to her letters of application to architectural firms.

She must find a position before October when her current student visa expires. Gaining the required on-the-job training at home will be difficult.

In Thailand the architectural degree lasts five years without the work break that is customary in the UK. Architectural firms in Thailand do not normally take on student architects for training mid-way through the qualification.

“I feel it is unfair,” she said. “I understand the economic situation here [in the UK] is not good but architecture should be an exception because it’s a professional degree that requires time in work in order to qualify.”

She believes the Thai government may not have funded the three years that she has already completed had they known in the beginning that the rules would change.

Return to Singapore

Tan, a Singaporean who did not want to be named, is in a similar position, having completed the first part of an architectural degree at University College London’s prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture. He must leave before August if he does not find a training position in an architectural firm.

He may have to work in Singapore. However, the rules set out by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), which oversees architectural qualifications, are that “out of the seven years required to qualify to be an architect, two years is work experience of which one year has to be in the UK,” Tan told University World News.

Although the UK government publicised the rule changes to the post-study work visa a year in advance, Tan started his degree four years ago. “What’s unfair is that had I finished the first part a year ago, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

It is not just a matter of finding a job that pays above the Home Office salary cut-off. Architectural firms taking on foreign students must now be licensed by the Home Office.

“That’s the tricky bit because smaller firms don’t usually obtain a licence, which makes it even more difficult,” said Tan.

The changes could affect business. While the UK and the construction industry are in recession because of the economic downturn, many of the top UK architectural firms rely on overseas projects, with links often made through students who studied in the UK.

Professional degrees

According to Migration Watch, a UK immigration think-tank, more than 184,000 post-study work visas were issued between 2004 and 2011. But the current government is attempting to cut back on overall immigration numbers, and students who stay for more than a year are classified as immigrants.

The problem with degrees that require time in work to qualify has been known for some time. A number of other professional degrees with large numbers of overseas students, such as pharmacy and qualifications to become an optician, require a year of work before the full qualification is granted. But they have already negotiated successfully with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to allow students to stay on.

Students are approved or sponsored as a group by the college that accredits degrees in the subject, rather than relying on small pharmacy firms to gain licences to sponsor them for jobs.

The RIBA said in a statement that it has been “liaising with the Home Office since the introduction of the points-based immigration system, in order to highlight the unique nature of architectural education in the UK, and to press for appropriate provision to be made within the different visa categories.

“There is provision for work placements to take place under the structure of the Tier 4 student visa, and the RIBA has sought additional guidance from the Home Office in order to act as a broker for information, and to support student members and validated course providers.”

Constant changes

However, the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), which advises international students and lobbies the government on behalf of their interests, said the problem was that the government’s immigration rules were constantly changing.

“The system – the whole idea of a minimum salary for the granting of visas – is changing as we speak. The system is not immediately clear,” said Beatrice Merrick, UKISA’s director of services and research.

“Unfortunately the institutions are not able to find the answers they want. It is stressful for students not knowing if they can continue,” she said.

Whatever the adjustments and changes still to come into effect, the impact is already being felt on universities, as applications from overseas students have plummeted.

Simeon Underwood, academic registrar at the London School of Economics (LSE), told a parliamentary committee in May that his institution was spending at least £250,000 per year trying to comply with the new rules and provide the right paperwork to UKBA on its international students, compared to a fifth of that sum five years ago.

Drop in Indian students

Describing the system as “Kafkaesque”, he said that because of the new rules, applications from South Asia to the LSE had dropped by 20% this year.

Nicola Dandridge of the vice-chancellors’ organisation Universities UK, told a parliamentary committee on 26 June that universities were already seeing “an actual reduction in student intake from some countries, particularly from India, particularly in the postgraduate market, and for some universities that is quite marked.

“They are concerned about it and particularly concerned about the impact on particular subject areas, particularly STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], where the continued impact in the future could affect the viability of some subjects.”

India is particularly affected because without the ability to work after graduation, it is impossible for students to pay back the large loans they have to take out to afford high international student fees.

The Indian government says it has been lobbying the UK, including at meetings with ministers.


Media in China has been reporting “a growing number of Chinese students deported from the United Kingdom recently because of visa policy changes”, according to Shanghai Daily in May.

The newspaper reported that police were reminding students to “study the new policies”, and had warned that a deportation record could make it difficult to visit the UK again.

The Chinese government is concerned in part because of graduate unemployment problems in China. Students returning with no work experience under their belt would add to the problem.

Sources said the Chinese embassy in the UK was keeping close watch on the visa issue and had approached the UK government about it.

In an unusual public move in March this year during a British Council conference Wang Lisheng, deputy director-general in China’s Ministry of Education, openly criticised changes in the UK’s student visa policies.

Christina Yan Zhang, former representative for international students at the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS), who is from China, said that with 80,000 students from China in the UK “the Chinese government is paying attention.

“It’s not just in the long term about Chinese students coming here [to the UK] to study, but also in the long-term interest of Chinese businesses who want to do business with the UK.
Many will hire people who formerly studied at UK universities.

“Some of these Chinese students will be the people who build up business links,” she said.

The visa changes, which also tightened up on students’ English language proficiency and reduced the number of hours students are allowed to work part-time from 20 hours to 10 hours a week, come at a time when Chinese universities are keen to collaborate with UK institutions.

“Almost all of the top 400 Chinese institutions are cooperating overseas and things are blossoming right now,” said Philip Hao, of the UK visa and international Education Centre in London, who added that the impact of the changes had not yet filtered through.

However, “those who want to apply for joint degrees may have to consider whether they should still do so or turn to the US or Australia instead. The number of Chinese applicants to the UK will consequently fall,” he was quoted in China Daily as saying.

Zhang said that in an NUS survey carried out in March, 75% of international students questioned felt very strongly about the visa issue, saying if they had known about visa changes in advance they would not have come to the UK to study.

“That’s a very strong message,” said Zhang.