With a record high net migration of 500,000, the UK government indeed has its work cut out trying to drastically reduce the number going forward. But while at it, Rishi Sunak and his Home Secretary must be reminded that their hardline approach could prove counterproductive, especially on the education industry and businesses.
Suella Braverman, the UK Home Secretary’s recent proposal to massively reduce the number of international students and dependents entering the country has faced criticism due to its potential reverse impact on the UK’s economy and international students.
With the sole aim of the proposal being to cut the net migration number across study, family, and employment visa routes, there will likely be an increase in separation between families and spouses. Not only that, if the proposal gets approved, the current labour shortage in the UK may worsen, and many UK universities are bound to share in the proposal’s consequences.
For many years, international students have been an essential source of revenue for the UK economy. Several universities depend on their tuition fees to fund research and other activities. According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, international students contribute approximately £25.9 billion per annum to the UK economy.
Why did Suella Braverman create proposals to reduce the net migration (the difference between immigration and emigration) in the UK primarily through the study, family, and employment visa routes?
Immigration in the UK: 2022 Figures Reveal Unexpected Net Migration High
In 2022, a few noteworthy immigration records brought the UK government’s attention to the immigration and emigration count. For example, the UK recorded a new net migration high of 504,000 due to factors such as the lift of the COVID-19 travel restrictions. The lift led to about 476,000 international students returning with their dependents.
According to the UK government website, there were 2,836,490 visas granted in 2022, of which 49% were visiting (short-stay visa), 22% were to study, 15% were to work, 3% were for family reasons, and 11% for other reasons (including Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme and British National(Overseas)). The study, work and family visa routes have a high percentage and allow longer stay periods.
Additionally, the dependents of international students who moved to the UK reached a staggering 81,089 — five times the 13,666 visas recorded in 2019. Reportedly another concern is the imbalance in the number of immigrants across nationalities. For instance, Nigerian students comprised only seven per cent of all international students in the same period, but 40% of the dependents were Nigerian citizens.
Reduce International Student Duration
Following the proposal’s updates, Braverman suggested reducing the duration of international students after completing their studies. The Home Secretary’s proposal aims to reduce the present stay time from 2 years to 6 months. The Department for Education (DfE) however opposed the plan. Several ministers and departments opposed the proposal due to its possible negative effect on the UK economy. However, the proposal to increase income requirements, reducing the number of dependents moving to the UK, was less opposed.
If the proposal passes, the number of international students coming to the UK in 2023 will likely reduce. Braverman proposes that the minimum income requirement per dependent be increased. This new requirement will make it more challenging for international students who want to take their parents or children to the country. For instance, presently, international students must have at least £680 per dependent for the study visa. The number of students who can afford it will get smaller with the increase.
Not only does it reduce the number of dependents, but it can also become detrimental to students who want to complete their studies in the UK but can’t afford the new minimum requirement. Despite the potential negative impacts that the reduction may cause the UK, the government defended its proposal stating that it was necessary. Additionally, there will likely be an increment in the income requirement for British nationals and on the family visa.
The current requirements state that applicants must show that their family member in the UK earns at least £18,600. According to the UK Parliament, over 1.6 million workers earn below the minimum wage. Many migrant workers might face difficulties bringing their families to the UK if the proposal goes into effect.
Furthermore, there might be an increase in the minimum income requirement for foreign workers who work roles on the shortage occupation list and apply via the skilled worker visa. The UK economy already struggles to achieve the labour supply it had pre-pandemic due to factors such as Brexit and halting the free movement of EU workers. By August 2022, Britain was already experiencing a shortage in labour and skills by 16.8%, with some roles facing about 35.5% shortage.
If the minimum income requirements are increased, not only would it be more challenging to fill up the roles on the shortage of occupation list, but employers will also face the consequences. To illustrate better, skilled worker visa applicants are to earn a minimum of £25,600 per annum or £10.10 per hour or the annual going rate according to their occupation — whichever is higher. All this means that it will be more challenging for employers to fill urgent and important roles, leaving HR frustrated with the growing skill gaps.
If the proposal succeeds, it would be the first time in a decade since the salary threshold for the shortage jobs gets updated. Suella Braverman created these proposals after Rishi Sunek, the country’s prime minister, vowed to cut down the net migration after he saw the arrival figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2022.
Potential Consequences of Limiting Immigration
Another challenge that may arise from enacting the proposal is illegal entry. For instance, those who cannot meet the requirements will start considering illicit ways to enter the UK, which will cause the UK government more headaches. Another possibility is that UK’s reputation for being a top destination for higher education gets hurt as many higher education students will get discouraged from studying in the UK.
Legal and education experts such as John Cahill and Vivienne stern have spoken up about the plans to reduce the number of immigrants, stating the economic implications.
John Cahill, a lawyer and partner at the Immigration Adice Service, (IAS), an immigration law firm that provides advice and representation to individuals and businesses across the UK, said that the proposals were neither friendly to the UK companies nor the universities. “The proposal was designed to score a political agenda to cut the net migration as a means to an end while not considering the broader damage it will have on the economy,” he stated.
On the other hand, Vivienne Stern (chief executive of Universities UK) had called the [plan ‘nonsensical’ and said that making it hard for foreign students to study in the UK would discourage postgraduate students from contributing to the UK’s research and the economy.
Indeed the UK needs to have some control over its borders. Nonetheless, the proposal to reduce the number of international students and dependents will severely affect its reputation, economy, and society. Although the proposal’s implementation is yet to be confirmed, several people have criticised the idea and want a more nuanced approach to immigration policy.
By Olusegun Akinfenwa who writes for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm that works with businesses and individuals and businesses across the UK and globally.