Students deserve the same visa rights as businesspeople

The United Kingdom government says it wants to send a message of ‘Global Britain – Open for Business’. I heartily agree. The country can and should be a magnet for companies that will create employment and drive prosperity across our nation.

But when it comes to practicalities, sometimes the country is blinded by stereotypes. Take education: images highlight our ancient universities, but the reality is that international students are both recipients of life-changing education and drivers of prosperity. Their fees are every bit as important an inward investment as a company considering relocation and their access to travel should reflect this.

An international student attending a UK university and a businessperson entering the UK for a business trip have a lot in common. For a start, both contribute directly to the British economy. In fact, pre-pandemic government data shows that international students are responsible for generating two and a half times more value than business travellers.

The best and the brightest

Both businesspeople and students also contribute to British institutions. The planet’s best and brightest come to the UK to study, research, work and make deals with our world-renowned organisations and businesses – they are not only consumers of knowledge but creators, vital to our research pipeline and key areas of innovation. From novel technologies to developing vaccines, the UK is undoubtedly better off for its ability to work with people from overseas.

Of course, a businessperson and a student both need a visa to enter the country – but that’s where the similarities end.

While businesspeople have access to a strict but relatively straightforward process, international students are still burdened with countless additional requirements. Layers of bureaucracy have accumulated over the years which don’t always reflect the actual nature of students coming to the UK or the contribution they make. To be frank, it is time for a rethink.

If it wants to see an example of what is possible, the UK can simply look at its own policies for business. Here the need to streamline and attract new partners has been embraced by policy-makers. With the government’s new Skilled Worker and High Potential Individual visas launching in the spring, it is clear the UK has an opportunity to re-envision student visas to ensure that students are treated with the same respect as businesspeople and skilled workers in the future.

The current outlook – student and business visas

It’s a matter of habit that the UK offers entirely different visas and routes for international students and businesspeople and that it views them so differently.

An international student’s ability to get a visa depends on the length of their course and the study they’ve already completed in the UK. They must also reapply as they move through the UK education system from English language teaching to undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD, contending with different application costs, timeframes and conditions at each stage.

Yet at each of these stages it would be all too easy for a student to look at another study destination. Why risk that?

Similarly, visa requirements have not yet been permanently updated to match the reality of blended learning. Once more, policy needs to keep up. Given the significant growth in this mode of delivery, there is a clear need to make the system more flexible if we are to lead in this area of rapid innovation. In short, the process is needlessly complex, costly and bureaucratic.

By comparison, a businessperson can apply once and receive a long-term visa – anything from two to 10 years – which they can use to enter the UK as many times as they wish. The result, in respect of students, could be the kind of loyalty that could transform our engagement with business leaders of the future.

Levelling up

The disparity is all the more frustrating when you consider all the benefits that international students bring compared with business travellers.

While a business traveller is most likely bound for London, students attend high-quality institutions the nation over, including areas in the north of the country that are a focus of the government’s levelling up agenda.

Last year’s data from Universities UK International and the Higher Education Policy Institute show that every region in the UK benefits directly from an economic uplift from international students equivalent to approximately £390 (US$508) per person per year.

This figure is higher for several areas highlighted in the levelling up plan. For instance, international students provide a total economic contribution of £290 million each year in Sheffield Central.

Of course, international students also bring far more to the country than their tuition fees and economic participation. Whereas businesspeople stay in hotels and remain relatively isolated, international students live in the UK, build friendships, perform charity work and sometimes even settle and become British themselves – the soft power benefits are immeasurable.

Are the new visas a step in the right direction?

The government is clearly willing to change the visa system, as evidenced by the recent switch to a points-based immigration programme and the introduction of the Skilled Worker visa.

The Skilled Worker visa will be launched this spring and will take the place of the Tier 2 work visa. Applicants can extend the visa for a maximum of five years, after which they can apply for settled status. Many international students will likely take advantage of the Skilled Worker visa – but there are noteworthy restrictions.

At the time of applying, applicants must have a job offer which includes a salary minimum which some graduates will struggle to reach. Many graduates don’t leave university with a job offer, so this requirement will force them to return home and reapply for a Skilled Worker visa from abroad. This completely undervalues the contributions they have made both culturally and economically, as well as imposing additional costs and an administrative burden.

The Home Office has also shared plans for another new route for which some international students will be eligible: the High Potential Individual visa, which will entitle graduates from the world’s ‘top’ universities – a list of these institutions is yet to be published – to the same rights as UK natives.

However, this scheme is also overly restrictive. Many international students attend top British universities which do not feature in the ‘global top 50’ and they also deserve access to visa benefits.

Lessons from abroad

For ideas on how the visa process could be improved, we can look to some of the UK’s top competitors for English-language international education. Australia, for instance, has eliminated visa price as a factor, as well as permitting diverse modes of delivery. In Canada, meanwhile, processing time is not an issue because the country has invested in fast-tracking student visas as part of the country’s international education strategy.

Both the United States and New Zealand offer the capacity to switch institution while remaining on the same visa – an option not afforded to international students in the UK. In New Zealand, the visa lasts up to four years. This is not to suggest that any competitor country has a perfect visa system; only that they have practical ideas which the UK should consider.

The solution is clear: end the outdated division between these two types of visitors. Students should receive the exact same privileges as businesspeople. This would take the form of a single, long-term study visa which covers their entire stay in the UK, from English language teaching to doctorates, minimising confusing paperwork, expensive reapplication and the stress of the bureaucratic process for international students and for the government.

International business travellers have long been welcomed in the UK without red tape, and the country is better off for it. Our own citizens benefit through the opportunities they bring. Meanwhile, the international education sector has succeeded in spite of visa restrictions.

Ultimately, this is not just an investment in the future of international students but in the UK’s levelling up agenda and ambitions for the education export sector.

James Pitman is Study Group’s managing director UK and Europe, as well as chair of Exporting Education UK and vice-chair of Independent Higher Education. He was a founding advisor to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students and sits on the newly formed Higher Education Sector Group.