Immigration: most foreign students banned from bringing families to UK in government attempt to curb migration
Ministers say the move will help reduce soaring net migration, but leading university figures have warned of the potential impacts on the higher education sector.
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Currently, students who come to study in the UK from abroad can apply to bring dependents - such as their partners or children - with them to live in the country while they study, with some allowed to stay for two years after the course finishes. But under new visa rules for everyone except postgraduates on research programmes, this will no longer be allowed.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told his Cabinet on Tuesday (23 May) that the number of visas issued to dependents joining those studying at universities in the UK had increased eight-fold - up from up from 16,000 in 2019 to 136,000 in 2022 - and that the change, to begin in January 2024, will make a “significant difference to the numbers.”
It comes as ministers brace themselves for the release of official statistics on Thursday (25 May), which are expected to show a huge surge in net migration over the last year - possibly to above 700,000. Sunak recently vowed to bring the level of net migration down to below the half a million figure he “inherited” when he became Prime Minister.
Unveiling the new restrictions in the House of Commons, Home Secretary Suella Braverman told MPs that the package “strikes the right balance between acting decisively on tackling net migration and protecting the economic benefits that students can bring to the UK” - and will help bring net migration to a “sustainable” level.
She continued: “Now is the time for us to make these changes to ensure an impact on net migration as soon as possible. We expect this package to have a tangible impact on net migration. Taken together with the easing of temporary factors, we expect net migration to fall to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term.”
In addition to barring the majority of international students from bringing dependants to the UK, the new plans also declare that:
- International students will no longer be able to switch out of the student visa route into work before their studies have been completed
- Steps will be taken to clamp down on “unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications to sell immigration, not education”
- There will be better communication around immigration rules to the higher education sector and to international students
- There will be “improved and targeted enforcement activity”
But while ministers say the move will tackle rising migration, leading university figures have warned about the detrimental impact the curbs could have on the higher education sector.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank, said: “This is not a wise move because every part of the UK benefits from the presence of international students and, if they are discouraged from coming to the UK, they won’t stay at home but instead go to our competitors.”
He added: “Given that international student fees subsidise the teaching of home students as well as research in the UK, I hope the Home Secretary will now be lobbying the Chancellor to help universities recoup their losses.”
Meanwhile, Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, warned that the changes will likely have a “disproportionate impact on women and students from certain countries”. He continued: “We therefore urge the government to work with the sector to limit and monitor the impact on particular groups of students.
“Our collective aim must be to ensure that international students who choose the UK can be confident that they are welcome here, that their contribution is valued, and that the terms on which they have made decisions remain stable.”
He also warned that the changes will severely affect universities already under “serious financial pressures”, remarking: “Anything that threatens to affect the UK’s global success as a top destination for international talent needs to be considered very carefully.”
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “Attracting the top students from around the world isn’t just good for our universities – it’s essential for our economy and building vital global relationships. But the number of family members being brought to the UK by students has risen significantly.”