UK visa rules are hostile to international students

The United Kingdom has always prided itself on its top educational establishments and universities. It has always welcomed international students; in fact, these very same international students have often gone on to be leaders in both the political and military spheres of the countries they came from.

There is no denying the political benefits of this courtship of international students: extending the UK’s influence around the world, coupled with bringing the country’s moral and common law values to an array of regions far and wide.

As the Brexit saga continues, it is increasingly important that the UK is able to negotiate fair trade deals outside of Europe. Many of those on the opposite side of the table will either have been educated in the UK or have had their education disrupted due to the academic progression rules.

What are the academic progression rules?

The concept of the academic progression rules was introduced while Theresa May was home secretary on 6 April 2012. These visa rules are designed to prevent international students from pursuing multiple undergraduate and masters degrees.

In this ever-changing competitive and complex world and with longer life expectancies, many students do wish to pursue multiple degrees. But the UK immigration rules prevent this unless it’s for a valid ‘academic progression’.

There have been cases where international students wish to pursue law degrees with the intention of returning to their own countries. In preparation for this, they have wanted to pursue an English degree first. Not a bad idea as the law in the UK, the United States and India (that is, the legal landscape affecting nearly two billion people) is largely conducted in the English language. However, this is not seen as ‘academic progression’ by the current government.

There are cases of maths students wishing to pursue combined undergraduate courses in maths and computer science. They are unable to do this as this is also not seen as ‘academic progression’.

Other examples include maths and chemistry, physics and chemistry and so forth. The effect of this has been to burden domestic students with expensive grants and to starve the education establishments of essential funding.

Political pressure to lower immigration

What was the purpose of this? Under political pressure to lower immigration figures, the government pounced on some of the easiest targets: international students. Call me a cynic, but it is quite clear to me (and to many others) that these rules came about as a way to ensure that international students finish their student tenure in the UK as quickly as possible.

Their departure dates could then be included as part of a ‘fudge’ of the immigration statistics with the sole purpose being to fool the public that non-UK nationals were leaving.

The justification for the policy was that many students overstayed, when in fact the statistics illustrate that very few students actually overstayed in the UK. The then home secretary, Theresa May, misrepresented the position.

To add insult to injury, the latest Migration Advisory report, which came out while she was prime minister, in fact recommends that student arrivals and departures be removed from immigration statistics.

The misinformation put out about this was to convince the public that tens of thousands of students were overstaying their visas and strict controls were required to force them to leave.

This is quite simply illogical. If the students were going to overstay, why not do so after three years rather than paying very high fees for an additional three years before overstaying?

This misinformation not only serves to fool the public, fudge immigration figures but perhaps, more importantly, serves to deprive universities of their much-needed funding; after all, international students pay very high fees.

This has inevitably led to a higher demand on UK students to fund their higher education and burdens graduates with long-term debt.


Thankfully, there is still time to turn on the funding tap for higher education establishments and to start re-attracting more of the ‘best of the best’ who wish to pursue their continued education in the UK.

Let’s not forget, some of them will be the captains of foreign industries whose loyalty and cooperation are essential to the UK’s economic revival and survival. The rules, as they stand, mean that many international students simply overlook the UK and move elsewhere for their education.

The norm in many cultures (Chinese and Indian, for example) is to do more than one undergraduate degree. The problem with the current system is that it only allows students visas to study one degree at undergraduate level. This circumstance means that international students (who pay extremely high fees to study abroad) are increasingly looking elsewhere to study.

Not only is the UK losing potential political and military allies, but also a young talent pool of entrepreneurs who will no doubt start up their successful businesses in the countries where they choose to study and which welcome them.

Can the UK really afford to continue with these rules under the turmoil of Brexit? Can the UK seriously afford to miss the opportunity of welcoming these future leaders and entrepreneurs and to encourage them to pursue their education in other countries when we need as many allies as possible? I think not.

The time has come to overhaul these illogical rules, provide our much loved and respected educational establishments with the funding they so rightly need and deserve and to ensure that the UK’s future is secure economically and politically.

To ensure as few international graduates start up businesses in the UK as possible and as a final act of defiance, Theresa May ensured that the long-standing entrepreneur rule was abolished in the recent immigration rules in March 2019. Graduates who now wish to start up businesses in the UK need £2 million (US$2.5 million) or a start-up visa that requires Home Office-defined accreditation, which barely exists.

At one point in time May said university funding must be found from other sources and not international students; a few weeks ago she was advocating the reduction of university fees. However, she steadfastly failed in the latest immigration rules to abolish the academic progression requirement.

When will this abhorrent dislike of international students pursuing their education in the UK stop? Hopefully after her imminent departure.

If the powers that be can take some time out to look to the national interest and the student debt mountain, then this wrong may be rectified and they can start sending out the message that the UK is genuinely open to graduates and business.

It’s essential that they do this before the summer break so that the opportunity to attract international students for the next academic year will not be lost.

Roger Gherson is a founding partner at Gherson Solicitors, United Kingdom.


International students deserve certainty because their futures depend on it. Changing rules and regulations according to the electoral cycles is bad policy-making and damaging to the economy.

David Pang on the University World News Facebook page