How can UK universities support applicants affected by student visa changes?

Higher education institutions can help international students feel welcome and valued through their admissions processes, administrative help and public statements, writes Kate Morse

Kate Morse's avatar
Sheffield Hallam University
8 Dec 2023
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International students enrich the social and cultural vibrancy of the UK’s universities, its cities and regions. They enhance the learning experience, offering diverse perspectives and viewpoints.

Nowhere is this more true than in Sheffield in northern England. Every year, students from more than 150 countries come to study in the South Yorkshire city. Not only this, but international students offer significant support to the local economy. The 2021-22 cohort brought a net economic benefit of £516.8 million across all constituencies in Sheffield.

However, after January 2024, new UK legislation says that international students looking to study in the UK will not be permitted to bring their partners and children into the country on their student visas unless the course they’re studying is a research-based degree or they are pursuing a PhD or other doctorate.

We at Sheffield Business School were not the only ones saddened by this news. This has been a controversial decision. A lecturers’ union said the legislation was “deeply shameful” and “anti-migrant”. The director of Universities UK International said these new laws were likely to disproportionately affect women and people from certain countries. It is likely that these regulations will particularly affect students in Nigeria and India.

As part of a university-wide initiative at Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield Business School is helping to support international applicants affected by this new legislation. There must be a dynamic approach enabling institutions to respond quickly to the challenges these students are facing.

Here are some of the ways that universities can offer support to international students.

Make a statement in support of international students

A public statement is one way to show that the new regulations do not reflect the institution’s views towards international applicants. UK universities need to demonstrate that they welcome and encourage prospective students looking to study here.

Recently, Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield joined forces with the South Yorkshire mayor, Sheffield MPs, council leaders and business leaders to deliver a statement of support for international students.

This statement outlined the positive impact that international students have on the region culturally, socially and economically. It was backed by the students’ unions of both universities.

The statement coincided with Universities UK’s #WeAreInternational campaign, which was relaunched in May 2023 to celebrate the economic, cultural, social and civic contribution international students make to the UK.

By posting our support on our social media channels, our website and by working with the media and organisations across the city, both universities have sent clear messages to prospective international students that Sheffield is a welcoming city.

Offer administrative support to international students

Supporting international students early in the application process to offer expertise and guidance from dedicated teams at the institution helps make students aware of the options available to them. Visa applications are expensive and can be confusing; universities can play a valuable role in helping international applicants understand which visas they’re eligible for and which are no longer available to them.

For example, under the new legislation, students will no longer be permitted to switch to the skilled worker route before they have completed their programmes, but they can still benefit from the graduate route, which allows eligible students to remain in the UK for two to three years after graduation.

Students need to be aware that a specialist service is on hand to support them throughout their journeys. Sheffield Hallam University works with students from application to ensure that they are well versed in all aspects of visa regulations, border control advice and preparation to travel and study in the UK. The international student experience team is well versed in UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) requirements and helps to provide expert advice and support from application through to graduation.

Along with our international student support team, we have teams in our international offices in China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Malaysia, as well as education agents in more than 35 countries, to address student queries and concerns. This service provides support and advice that is specific to the country in question. For example, with the devaluation of the naira in Nigeria, local advice gave us the opportunity to respond to Nigerian students’ financial challenges by developing personalised payment plans during their year of study.

Help international students feel welcome

UK universities might not be able to change the legislation, but institutions can take concrete steps to make that every international student’s study experience in the UK memorable.

First, ensure that potential applicants and current students from abroad have access to help and advice so they can settle quickly into life in the UK and concentrate on their studies.

As well as answering questions and helping with problems online, Sheffield Hallam’s international student support team offers a free pre-booked airport meet-and-greet service so a student’s study journey is supported as soon as they arrive.

Once they’ve enrolled, which can be done by the student online two weeks before their course starts, all new postgraduate students are invited to join Success at Level 7, an online live seminar programme offering practical guidance and study skills support to help them understand the expectations of their courses and assist them in graduating with the very best qualifications.

Sheffield Hallam University offers students ongoing support through access to drop-in study sessions and one-to-one help. Our student support triangle provides students with a personal team of three dedicated advisers: a student support adviser to help when problems affect a student’s studies; an academic adviser to support their learning journey; and an employability adviser to help them choose and build the right career.

Our strong relationship with international officers in the students’ union has provided us with opportunities to promote students’ voices and to further build support communities and events to celebrate specific cultural groups.

UK universities recognise how valuable international students are, in so many ways, especially the huge contribution they make to diversity and cultural awareness here in the UK.

Kate Morse is associate dean (global development and academic partnerships) in the College of Business, Technology and Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University.

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