International Student Visas

Co-authored by James Lush, CaSE intern, and Imran Khan, CaSE Director

The Home Office’s plans to restrict student visas present some potentially damaging implications for UK science and engineering. CaSE has responded to the consultation, here is a summary of our concerns and suggestions.

Language tests

The Government is planning to introduce tougher language tests for potential students. However, science and engineering are inherently international activities, with recognition based on academic merit.

Nearly 40% of the UK’s scientific output from 2002-2007 involved international collaborations, so it is actually a positive aspect of UK higher education that students are exposed to a diverse peer group from the outset. Trying to filter out students who don’t have brilliant English isn’t helpful.

University departments threatened?

Teaching science and engineering often needs high levels of funding compared to other subjects. University departments therefore often rely on the cost-price fees charged to international students. By deliberately excluding them, some departments might have to shut, ironically threatening provision for home students.

Universities must therefore be allowed to determine their student intake purely on the merits of individual applicants. They can then take steps internally to ensure that non-native English speakers are given support to reach the required level.

Several more seemingly unfair limitations on international students – who could contribute to UK science and engineering – are of concern to us. From the perspective of wanting to attract the best students, it seems unreasonable to restrict students from taking a second degree, or require them to leave the UK in order to apply for a visa to come back. Again, this would undermine the academic meritocracy which underpins our science and engineering research base.

Post-study work and skills shortages

The government claims that “a student’s primary motivation for coming to the UK should be the prospect of obtaining a world class education here, not of being able to work afterwards.” This ignores the clear fact that it is in the UK’s interest for students to want to work in science or engineering as a postgraduate, particularly in shortage areas.

At a time when the official Shortage Occupation List includes professions such as civil engineers, chemical engineers, veterinary surgeons, cardiac physiologists and many more, closing the Tier 1 post-study work (PSW) route sends completely the wrong message.

Building a high-tech economy

David Cameron recently talked of his hopes for the ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in Old Street, London. It is notable that its namesake, Silicon Valley, has relied heavily on an influx of migrants to allow its continued success. As Melanie Warner wrote in Fortune, “It’s safe to say that without Indian immigrants the [Silicon] Valley wouldn’t be what it is today”.

Many of those immigrants went directly to Silicon Valley from institutions such as MIT. If we want to emulate that success, making it harder for top students to come and study here is the worst place to start.

How long to wait?

Restricting the entry of students to the UK with Tier 4 student visas could threaten our ability to attract the “brightest and best” students, something which Home Secretary Theresa May has spoken of as a key target.

The UKBA have asked what kind of timescale is required for evaluation of the changes, and we are clear that at least one full academic year is needed, so that their impact on educational institutions can be judged properly.

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  1. Posted 02/02/2011 at 11:24 | Permalink

    Many good points but I wouldn’t be so hasty to abandon the language test. Universities usually have their own criteria anyway but it is simply not possible to give someone a decent education if they don’t have a sufficient working knowledge of English.

    Also, though foreign students are a valuable source of income (and UK universities a recognised success as an international ‘education industry’), there has to be some balance between places offered to UK (& EU) students on the one hand and overseas students on the other. It may be useful to have guidance on this – and that’s maybe a decision for govt. But certainly what is to be avoided is an arbitrary limit imposed by generic visa restrictions.

    • Imran Khan
      Posted 02/02/2011 at 13:58 | Permalink

      Thanks Stephen. To clarify, there already is a language requirement – the Home Office proposals are to make it tighter. But there is no justification for that tightening beyond “we need to reduce the number of students coming in” – which of course ties in with the point you make at the end.

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