Overseas students: new work visa rules make UK ‘challenging’

Salary thresholds for non-EU nationals may drive students to rival nations, warns immigration expert

April 2, 2016
Red car stuck in alleyway, Córdoba, Spain
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It’s a squeeze: UK efforts to cut immigration may prompt international students to head elsewhere

International students may be put off from applying to UK universities by “challenging” new restrictions on employing foreign graduates, an expert on immigration law has warned.

While higher education has won several exemptions from new proposals to limit the flow of skilled workers from outside the European Union into the UK, the new rules may still damage the university sector by increasing the perception that the UK is “too challenging” for foreign graduates who want to compete in the labour market against home-grown staff, said Katrina Cooper, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal, who specialises in immigration law.

Several leading employers are now looking to close their graduate recruitment schemes to non-EU nationals thanks to the extra complexity surrounding employing foreign nationals, said Ms Cooper.

Such effects of the new proposals may lead many foreign students to opt for universities in those countries with more welcoming visa regimes, thereby harming the UK’s ability to recruit top postgraduates, Ms Cooper argued.

“These changes will give other jurisdictions, such as Australia, Canada and the US, leverage to pick up the best and brightest global talent as the perception will be that the UK is too challenging,” said Ms Cooper.

Under the reforms announced in Parliament on 24 March by immigration minister James Brokenshire, the minimum salary for experienced skilled migrants from outside the EU to gain a visa will rise from £20,800 to £30,000 in April 2017.

Non-EU graduates of UK universities are already granted five years to reach the threshold – but the increase in the threshold significantly raises the bar on the salary they must achieve to avoid being forced to leave the country.

“This could have a reputational impact on the higher education sector as it may put off students from wanting to do a PhD in the UK if there is a chance that they cannot be sponsored due to salary issues post-completion of their PhD,” said Ms Cooper.

However, the new changes may also push up the wage bills of some universities if the proposed annual £1,000 immigration skills charge on employers using non-EU nationals goes ahead, she said.

While an exemption for PhD-requiring roles will apply to most non-EU staff employed in higher education, there may be a “small proportion” of non-PhD qualified university staff subject to the new levy, Ms Cooper said.

Fears that the £30,000 salary threshold might affect large numbers of lower-paid postdoctoral researchers are likely to be unfounded as relatively few salaries in this area were below the threshold, she added.

A Universities UK spokesman agreed with this analysis, saying that the sector body did “not expect the changes to minimum salary requirements to have a major impact on the sector".

“The vast majority of those on Tier 2 visas are employed in academic positions with salaries above the minimum thresholds set out by the government,” he added.

Universities would “review workforce planning and pay scales to ensure they don’t lose talented staff from outside the EU as a result of these changes”, he continued. “We are glad that the government has listened to the evidence and arguments provided by Universities UK and others, and has exempted jobs requiring PhDs from the proposal to levy an ‘immigration skills charge’ on employers."


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