Two-year graduate visa gives UK prestige a fillip abroad

The prospect of sought-after jobs in the UK will create an influx of students, says John Gill

July 10, 2008

The introduction of a longer work visa for overseas students graduating from UK universities has been hailed as a major boost for the country's standing in the international higher education marketplace.

A change in the law as part of the new points-based immigration system will see graduates get a two-year visa after finishing their studies.

Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), said the new rules would help to safeguard the flow of students.

"For the past year we've had the International Graduate Scheme, which has meant they can stay on and work for a year once they graduate. From this month all graduates are allowed to stay on and work for two years once they've finished their degrees.

"That's what we've argued for because we think there are skills and expertise there that the UK could use, but it is also what the customer is asking for.

"International students are no longer saying 'Give me a degree and I'll go back home', they want work experience in the UK to prove that education will equip them for the workplace," Mr Scott said.

Speaking ahead of this week's UKCISA conference marking the organisation's 40th anniversary, he acknowledged that some aspects of the new immigration system were controversial and warned that strict controls and reporting requirements could put some students off.

He added that the switch to a two-year visa, although welcome, could pose some challenges for universities.

"Students are now increasingly thinking a two-year work entitlement means that they will get a two-year job.

"Careers services in universities are having to be far more robust in finding those jobs and explaining to employers that it is no longer difficult to employ an international student, and it's no longer illegal.

"Students from China and India are coming now because they know they will be able to work in the UK after they finish their studies, which is a huge point of advantage."

The conference at Lancaster University, which is sponsored by Times Higher Education, marks a milestone for UKCISA, which was set up in 1968.

Mr Scott said the organisation was founded when student activism was at its height and followed the announcement that universities were to charge fees to international students for the first time. He said: "Instead of traditionally hosting these students, we were suddenly going to charge them to study here.

"At the time, Jack Straw (now Justice Secretary) led a National Union of Students delegation to the Foreign Office with UKCISA to complain about differential fees. It would be interesting to ask him now what he feels about differential fees."

Since then, Mr Scott said, the sector's approach to overseas students had changed from that of a "cottage industry" into big business for universities, which is administered not by the Government or the British Council but by the institutions themselves.

"We've come to a stage now where the UK is getting £4 billion in income from international students and we have to ask ourselves what our advantage is in the global market.

"We classically say that UK education is world class and gold standard, and I think that's right, but many would argue that you can say the same about a dozen other countries," Mr Scott added.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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