The great immigration con: What can our universities do?

Since 1999, 300 migrants, including over 30 children, have died in their attempt to cross the English Channel. They add to the tragic stories of children’s bodies washed up on the beaches of southern Europe alongside sun loungers and parasols.

One thing is for certain: the immigration debate divides populations worldwide. Politicians know that there are votes in immigration and, if polls look dicey, it is all too easy to make it more difficult for ‘foreigners’ to enter and exit national borders.

There has been much controversy in the United Kingdom recently due to the government’s plans to deport all asylum seekers who enter the UK illegally to Rwanda.

While many are highly critical of the Conservative government, 75% of Conservative voters are in favour of the policy and it would not be surprising if a significant number of Labour voters were also in favour, particularly in ‘Red wall’ (formerly solidly Labour) constituencies in the North where the Tories are keen to retain the untraditional support they earned in 2019 at the next election. This is particularly relevant after the loss of Wakefield in the recent by-election.

So what is the impact on higher education? When, in 2014, then home secretary Theresa May abolished international students’ post-study work rights in the UK, the result was significant for UK higher education institutions, which immediately saw a fall-off in demand for university places, with students opting for alternative destinations such as Australia and Canada.

The result of this was the UK losing its second-place status for student mobility, as highlighted first by Professor Simon Marginson in 2018 and in Universities UK and IDP Connect’s two-part report Why Aren’t We Second?

The Graduate Route

The reinstatement of post-study work rights in 2019 was much lobbied for and celebrated under the banner of the Graduate Route. The UK has since benefited from both the Graduate Route being in place and relatively open borders during the pandemic compared to the rest of the world, which has led to record numbers of international students applying for university places.

Far more students are coming from Africa and South Asia than ever before. Students from these regions are much more likely to wish to use their studies overseas as a ‘pathway to immigration’ than those from China or Southeast Asia.

The Graduate Route is in fact an anathema as the UK is not offering a ‘pathway to immigration’ – far from it. It is simply offering the ability to work in the UK for two or three years post-study.

In fact, prior to post-study work rights being abolished in 2014, there were 236,580 international students studying in the UK and only 5,639 were granted a Tier 2 visa, which equates to 3% who were allowed to continue to work in the UK after their post-study work permission expired.

There is nothing to suggest that, following the reinstatement of post-study work rights this time around, things will be any different. Even the UK government’s new High Potential Individual visa is time bound, and only time will tell if the so-called ‘best and the brightest’ are any more successful in obtaining Tier 2 visa status.

Australia and the US

The UK situation in many ways mirrors the Australian experience of post-study work rights which existed throughout the challenges of the May era.

At that time Australia maintained post-study work rights for international students and benefited greatly as a result. However, students’ experience of post-study work rights in Australia rarely lived up to their expectations as, following their degree, they were largely unable to land graduate jobs in the skilled occupations for which they were qualified.

Research by Ly Tran at Deakin University outlines the challenges faced by international students in Australia and, unfortunately, the UK has done little to learn from this experience and prepare UK employers adequately for the changes.

We then come to the provision in the United States of Optional Practical Training, which allows for one to three years of relevant training/work depending on the international student’s major at college/university.

While popular with international students, this in no way grants them the ability to stay in the US indefinitely following their studies and the one-year time limit is making other English-speaking destinations (Australia, Canada and the UK) more attractive to international students as the US still recovers from its Trump hangover and the global pandemic.

Canada reaps some benefits

Finally, we come to Canada which does in fact offer a pathway to immigration for international students following their higher education in Canada. This has seen the numbers of international students applying to study in Canada spike over the last five years, when the UK was without post-study work rights and Australia and New Zealand closed their borders for two years during the global pandemic.

What is interesting about the international student population in Canada is that their largest student population is not Chinese, as is the case in all other English-speaking destinations; it is from India. This largely reflects the path to immigration offered to students which is highly attractive to South Asian students.

There is, however, a caveat to this policy and a key challenge. The caveat is that the path to immigration is not open to all international students. Students from some colleges do not qualify, but the path is, nevertheless, sold by unscrupulous agents and listed by aggregators as leading to permanent leave to remain in Canada.

And unfortunately, even though Canada has been the first to open its doors to international talent by offering a path to immigration, it is not Canada that is the main beneficiary. Many international students have obtained their Canadian citizenship in order to go south of the border to the United States where they can work due to their Canadian citizenship.

To date Canada has put no restrictions on the time that must be spent in Canada contributing to the national economy before an individual can ‘jump ship’, so to speak.

To summarise: of the four largest English-speaking study destinations only Canada offers ‘some’ international students a pathway to immigration – Australia, the UK and the US most definitely do not.

This may have a clear political rationale as politicians have elections to win, but for most international students the picture is not so clear. Advertising by national bodies extolling the virtues of post-study work rights makes no mention of the likelihood of students obtaining a work visa after the period of post-study work expires.

Agents in foreign lands are unaware of the very poor prospects of international students being given indefinite leave to remain in their country of study and are happy to remain vague on students’ prospects. It is all too easy to sell the dream to recruit students, only for those dreams to be cruelly dashed when students come to terms with the harsh reality.

Solutions to a sticky problem

So, what is the solution to this somewhat sticky problem? Countries and universities are eager to attract international students due to the revenue they bring into university coffers as well as their contribution to institutions of higher learning, but they are far less eager to support these students to transition into the workforce and along a path to immigration.

While post-study work rights are important to attract students, if universities offered the appropriate support for students to start successful careers back in their home country, the path to immigration would be far less compelling.

By understanding their international students’ graduate outcomes and leading international graduate destinations, universities would be in a far better position to support students’ transition into the workforce in their home countries.

Post-study work rights in fact exacerbate a much larger issue; the global brain drain from South to North is still a significant issue. Universities can be part of the solution, but only if they have a forensic understanding of their international graduate destinations by country and support their international students to succeed in their early careers when they return home.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.