The UK’s two-year work visa is nothing to do with attracting talent

History suggests that universities will lure students with the chance to repay fees via post-graduation work, says Peter Brady

十月 1, 2019
UK visa no date

The UK’s recent announcement of the reintroduction of two-year post-study work visas by business secretary Andrea Leadsom is evidence that the power struggle over immigration between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has tipped in favour of the latter.

Universities UK claimed victory, having lobbied for this move for years. Of course, the highly paid institutional leaders that constitute its membership see universities as businesses, and no doubt post-study work visas make sound commercial sense, both for universities themselves and the wider economy. Even under the restricted visa policy introduced by then home secretary Theresa May in 2012, UUK estimated that international students were worth £25 billion a year to the UK economy.

But what will be the effect of reopening the UK’s universities to not so much the best of the best as the whole of the rest? Because make no bones about it: the policy has everything to do with money and very little to do with attracting talent or helping international graduates start on a career.

The Scottish government was the first to use this cynical marketing ploy. In 2004, it introduced the Fresh Talent Initiative, whose main feature was a commitment to allow non-EU students at Scottish universities to work for two years after graduation. The policy was introduced under the pretence that there was a serious worry in Scotland about a decreasing population, but Poland’s recent accession to the EU guaranteed that this would soon be reversed. In reality, the policy’s aim was to give Scottish universities an edge on the rest of the UK in the international student market.

And it was spectacularly successful. In the year that followed, there was a drop in applications to the rest of the UK, while Scotland’s applications soared by 20 per cent, according to The Sunday Times. In price-sensitive countries, particularly India, the opportunity to work in Scotland was marketed as a way of paying back fees, and in the first year of Fresh Talent, applications from India, previously weighted 80/20 in favour of English universities, became 70/30 in favour of Scottish universities.

In one case, a number of the latter worked with a group of Indian catering colleges to allow advanced entry for their graduates and a bulk-buy discount. The college group had an office in the UK that found jobs after graduation for these students. It was a win-win: the quality of cooking in the UK’s Indian restaurants went up, while the chefs returned home with a UK degree, work experience and even some money.

The English universities fought back and eventually, in 2008, got the same rights for their graduates. As in Scotland, many marketed post-study work visas as a way for students who couldn’t actually afford a UK education to pay for one afterwards. To get a visa did require evidence of sufficient funds, but there are well known ways around this; there are even companies set up just for that purpose.

So poor students came to the UK with the express goal of working as many hours as they could and spending as little as possible in the allocated two years. When the UK Border Agency was asked to look at post-study work visas in 2010, it found that only 25 per cent of those holding one were doing skilled work.

After May began requiring graduates seeking a post-work visa to have the offer of skilled employment, the number of Indian students studying in the UK halved, with the drop being felt particularly keenly by the less wealthy post-1992 institutions. There were also downturns from other price-sensitive countries.

Since Scottish universities are increasingly reliant on overseas and rest-of-UK students, they might be excused if they revert to type under Leadsom’s new scheme. But domestic fees in England tripled in the same year as May’s rules were introduced. Surely there is no longer any need for English universities to trawl the world for students who can only repay sky-high international fees by undertaking two years of unskilled labour after graduation.

Peter Brady is an international education consultant. His book, Internationalisation of UK Post-1992 Universities: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, will be published by Anthem Press in January.

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Print headline: Just a marketing ploy

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Reader's comments (2)

Spot on. International students are seen as merely cash cows. They are enticed over here by dodgy agents and aggressive recruitment tactics that are now being used on fee paying home students as Augar pointed out
I think you will find that most post 1992 Universities, who are the ones who operate in this way, still need the money. Others so called better universities have lowered their entry requirements and taken their domestic markets. So expect to see an increase in poor students desperate to pay off their fees, accommodation and flights. A modern day indenture system.

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