Coronavirus: ex UK minister calls for four-year post-study work visa

Pandemic crisis is chance to consider longer post-study work visas and even route to citizenship for foreign students, Chris Skidmore tells THE event

April 23, 2020
Jo Johnson, Lord Willetts and Chris Skidmore with Sara Custer. Zoom webinar 23rd April 2020.

Introducing a four-year post-study work visa and even a path to UK citizenship for foreign students could help to reduce the huge slump in international enrolments predicted for the next academic year, according to former universities minister Chris Skidmore.

With UK universities braced to lose billions of pounds of funding as a result of international students not travelling during the coronavirus crisis, Universities UK has called on the government to allow “greater flexibility” on student visas as part of a £2 billion rescue package the sector is seeking.

Mr Skidmore was speaking as part of an online discussion about the post-pandemic future of global higher education with two other former universities ministers, Jo Johnson and Lord Willetts, hosted by Times Higher Education on 23 April. He said he would like ministers to think about an “enticing, bold offer” on student visas, particularly for those studying priority subjects.

It follows the restoration of the two-year post-study work visa in July 2019, seven years after the scheme was scrapped when Theresa May was home secretary.

“We might be able to revisit the two-year post-study work visa,” said Mr Skidmore, who compared the UK’s offer unfavourably with Canada and Australia, which had “longer periods for post-study work”.

“There is potentially now the case to argue for an extension of that – potentially in subjects and disciplines where we may want those individuals to stay for longer,” he said, adding that “I’d argue for a four-year post-study work visa in some disciplines and even a route towards citizenship”.

He continued: “Ultimately, we have individuals coming here who are training up and are experts in their field – why wouldn’t we want them to stay here for the rest of their careers if possible?

“We could make that enticing, bold offer to say we do want individuals to come here for the future,” Mr Skidmore added at the event, which was attended online by more than 1,200 people.

Mr Johnson called for a “cross-government effort” to ensure that its international student strategy, announced in March 2019, was not neglected, saying that “all flexibilities that need to be put in place in terms of visas” should be granted. Under those plans overseen by Mr Skidmore, the UK aims to grow its international student numbers to 600,000 by 2030, up from 460,000 at present.

Even though that target might be “somewhat unattainable” in the current situation, said Mr Johnson, he believed it was important to consider “what the right policy measures are…to make sure we make progress towards it” given its “systemic importance” to the UK economy.

“It is often not realised by colleagues in Parliament that we don’t have many globally competitive sectors in our economy. We have finance, a bit of pharma; but higher education is genuinely one of our global strengths, and it contributes a huge amount to our exports, about £20 billion a year,” he said.

“We are a country that is running a big current account deficit, and it will be even bigger when we come out of the coronavirus crisis, so we cannot afford to get this wrong,” he added.

As many regional and international language testing centres and Home Office visa centres were now closed, Mr Johnson suggested that ministers should give responsibility for these areas to universities themselves.

“Taking a lot of bureaucracy out of the pipeline will be one of the most helpful things that government can do in this crisis – this is an opportunity to let the sector take responsibility over many different elements of the international student recruitment process, from visa issuance to language requirements,” said Mr Johnson, adding that it could “earn its spurs” by doing so responsibly.

Lord Willetts said he believed it was also worth revisiting whether UK students should be allowed to access loan funding for studying abroad, “especially if the crisis leads to more national barriers and borders being put up”.

“If I was trying to attract more students overseas, from a given country, turning and saying, ‘We, in turn, will make loans available for British students to study in your country’…opens up a much more constructive dialogue,” said Lord Willetts.

Mr Johnson, whose brief return as higher education minister last year saw the reintroduction of post-study work visas, also expressed his hope that the coronavirus crisis would help to “strengthen the relatively new consensus that international students add value to universities and the whole economy”.

“We sadly only recognise value in things when they are gone. International students are in danger of going – and, boy, will we miss them when they are gone.”

Watch the full debate


Print headline: Chance for new visa change, new markets and new support

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Reader's comments (3)

This has great potential, firstly to help stabilise those Universities that have ignored the signs that the major overseas (Asian) income stream has been slowing and likely to stop once enough have trained and returned home to operate Universities in their home countries, though China will continue to send enough to report back on 'interesting' research and to warrant the continuation of the Confucious Institute 'programme' of influence and control. The second however is less welcome, with many home (UK) graduates already apparently failing to secure their desired post graduate study courses, as Universities appear to favour the higher income potential that overseas students can generate already, this may increase the disenfanchisement felt by home (UK) graduates and if it does it will be picked up by those that have been attempting to highlight the effeccts of mass migration/immagration on the 'working' & lower middle classes (suppressed wages and reduced job opportunities), leading to more friction. This may lead to an even greater disconnect between Universities and local society, in most towns and cities those relationships are strained enough already. Though of course having a greater pool of suitably qualified candidates for every Academic job will suit most University managements, enabling further degradation of 'terms and conditions' and suppression of descent from Academic staff through increased fear of being easily and cheaply replaced. I would urge our Trades Unions to look very closely at what is being proposed by this Oxford Graduate Tory, and it's likely long term effects.
It would be better to give preference to British people unemployed after the C-19 crisis, rather than accelerating immigration, often from incompatible cultures, against the wishes of the electorate.
When it comes to the international students studying in the UK, I believe that those "studying in the UK" though "living in another country" should also be included in the picture. These can be both students on UK undergraduate/postgraduate distance learning courses or postgraduate research students who do not need to stay continuously in the UK, with the latter group including myself. Paying the fees, studying at UK higher education programmes, and earning UK degrees, without causing any burden on the UK taxpayers. Added to this can be the improved familiarity with the UK higher education standards- and the way of life in general, depending on the student profile, and the contribution to the UK economy during the campus visits, no matter how tiny might be each of these individually. That said, not everyone would necessarily like to work in the UK following their graduation; however, I think there can be only good potential for the UK in the cases of those who would like to do so.