Their loss will be our loss

Ending visas for non-EU graduate students to stay in the UK to work would be disastrous, warns Kathryn Holeywell

March 10, 2011

There has been a backlash in recent weeks against the UK Border Agency's proposed changes to student immigration. Education providers, academic think tanks and other interested parties have all criticised the government proposals, aimed at reducing the allocation of non-European Union student visas.

Current non-EU students, curiously, have remained predominantly silent in this debate. This contrasts with the demonstrations by British students in the concurrent tuition fees discussion. The quiet emanating from the nation's 368,000-plus non-EU students might suggest that the controversial proposals stand to impact on recruitment without impinging on the lives of international students already resident in the UK. But this silence is misleading.

Embedded in the Border Agency's package of new restrictions is a proposal to end the Tier 1 Post-study Work (PSW) visa. Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, warns that closure of the PSW scheme will prove "deeply discouraging to British recruitment and guarantee competitive disadvantage".

The PSW allows non-EU graduates to remain in the country for up to two years after earning a degree. This visa is unique because it enables former students to apply for and undertake employment without a sponsor. But the PSW's most attractive attribute is the flexibility it affords recent graduates to create a life after academe. And the PSW's elasticity has a particular function for PhD students who, immediately out of graduate school, must undertake a range of disparate activities to gain further professional experience while waiting for the increasingly rare golden ticket of a full-time academic post.

The proposed closure of the PSW should be alarming to any non-EU PhD student - and their supervisors - planning to pursue an academic career in the UK. The PSW is the most clear-cut route for them to pursue any combination of academic activities following a successful viva, such as obtaining teaching experience and reworking their thesis for publication. An end to the PSW will mean that recently completed non-EU PhDs who have been unable to secure a sponsored academic post by the time of the viva will have to return home.

While completing a PhD, postgraduate students have already begun to engage in their discipline's academic culture via research, publication, teaching, service and administration. Non-EU PhDs should have at least some opportunity to apply for early academic jobs in the same culture - the same marketplace - in which they have been embedded as students.

More worryingly, the elimination of the PSW threatens to remove the opportunity for non-EU PhDs to revise a thesis for publication. Without the PSW, graduate students will be cut off from disciplinary research networks and academic mentors.

Immigration minister Damian Green has criticised the PSW scheme for allowing graduates "unfettered access to the UK labour market for two years". But in the case of recent PhDs, this two-year window is absolutely necessary.

As doctoral supervisors know only too well, postgraduates face an uphill battle entering the academic job market. On completing a doctorate, many scholars find it difficult to get a job, and must work on an hourly paid basis, or on temporary or part-time contracts, to gain experience and earn a living.

The point is that the PSW serves an institutional function in facilitating a documented, well-trodden transition from the PhD into academia.

If the Border Agency's immigration proposals are adopted, the PSW scheme will close in April. Without the phased removal of the PSW, non-EU PhDs who were recruited to study at UK universities under one set of immigration laws will have these policies reversed mid-degree.

This feels like a bait-and-switch for postgraduate students who have contributed to UK higher education not only financially (a PhD costs £30,000 and upwards) but also through their involvement in the research and teaching cultures of UK universities.

It must not happen.

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