Theresa May’s plan to scrap bridging visas for non-EU international student graduates has been blocked – for now. The proposal, which appeared in the Tories’ 2010 general election manifesto, will not be invoked. Following a sharp campaign by Sir James Dyson, and the former universities minister David Willetts, the chancellor has reportedly forced the home secretary to back down.
Non-EU graduates will still have four months to obtain a job worth £24,000 a year and apply for a work visa. They will not have to return home and apply for work and a new visa from outside the UK, which would have meant that most of these high-skill UK trained graduates, especially in Stem fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) would have been lost.
But the UK’s disastrous policy on international students is still far from resolved. With all the weight of her office the home secretary has turned non-EU students into another migration bogey, akin to Ukip’s Rumanians and Bulgarians. She has gifted Nigel Farage with an issue he can run whenever he wants, either before the election or under a Tory-Ukip coalition government.
This is as bad as it gets. The home secretary’s numbers will fit neatly on a Ukip poster, but they do not fit with the downward trend in non-EU student numbers.
Until 2012 the UK offered non-EU graduates two years to find a job, akin to the present rules operating in Australia and Canada, though not as generous.
When this was scaled down to four months, the number of graduates who were granted extended visas dropped by 84% in one year. There were only 6,238 such visas granted to non-EEA graduates in 2013. And once the UK began to close the door to the rest of the world, non-EU student entry fell in response, with a 5% drop in non-EU postgraduate student numbers in 2012-13.
The UK is the only English-speaking country where non-EU student numbers are falling. But it is not fast enough for a government under pressure to block migration at any cost.
Efforts to take international students out of the net migration target, the object of a strenuous campaign by Lords committees, industry and Universities UK, have been set back.
Even among the Tory hard-heads who refused to back the home secretary this time round, reducing non-EU students is still central to the government’s plan to cut migration numbers.
The slowdown of high-skill mobility into the UK is already hurting. It would hurt more if net migration comes down at a faster rate. Not only does this detonate two generations of marketing the UK (especially London), as the cosmopolitan global centre, Cool Brittania, it fundamentally undermines the economy.
The fact that Ukip can never face – to do so would negate its whole existence – is that high cross-border mobility is the norm. It is culturally and economically inevitable. Countries like North Korea that go it alone pay the price.
In 2012-13, 43% of all postgraduates enrolled in UK engineering and technology were non-EU students, and 50% of those in maths. Advanced economies depend on access to the global pool of high skills.
For non-EU graduates it is much harder to apply for work from outside the UK. The best UK-trained graduates would be the ones most likely to leak to countries with more welcoming immigration regimes, especially the US and Canada.
Slow UK visa processing, another consequence of the anti-migration politics that has gripped the government, would increase the leakage.
Under the Obama government the US has swung the door open, stapling a green card to the diplomas of Stem graduates. In 2013-14 there was an 8% increase in international student numbers in the US while numbers in the UK trended down.
Theresa May has been stopped this time, but the battle is far from over.
Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education at UCL Institute of Education