British universities are pushing the government hard to bring back work visas for overseas graduates as the UK continues to struggle to bring talent in from around the world. With Brexit on the horizon, it seems more important than ever that the UK finds a way to bring in talented migrants that are able to fill skill shortages. One of the best ways of doing this, according to universities, is to bring in overseas students to become graduates and keep their skills in the UK. Their plan is to reintroduce a visa that had been previously been phased out and attempt to keep skilled graduates in the country after finishing their studies in the UK. The benefit is double edged: the universities get overseas students and the UK gets skilled workers. In the aftermath of Brexit, the UK will likely be in short supply of the staff that it needs and it would certainly seem like a diligent move to bring these staff into the UK.
The largest stumbling block to the idea is that the Conservatives will not want to do anything that increases immigration. In their previous manifestos, the Conservatives have pledged to significantly cut immigration down to the “tens of thousands”. This idea would fly directly in the face of that, and would cause major rifts in the party and with their electorate. While the government have such a fragile majority, anything as significant as this proposal is unlikely to fly. With Brexit still to be sorted, it seems even less likely that anything will be done as far as immigration is concerned in the next few months - though experts would agree that the UK needs these changes to help soften the blow. In the meantime, it seems as though the UK will continue to sleepwalk into a Brexit deal that does it no favours. The impending potential change in leadership - from Theresa May to Boris Johnson (if predictions are correct) will muddy the waters even further.
Boris Johnson is something of a populist dream. It seems unclear to many quite why Johnson is quite so popular. An old Etonian, Johnson represents the elite. But he also somehow seems to chime with ordinary people. Perhaps it’s his buffoonery and messy personal life that makes him relatable. He always certainly seems jovial. But many understand that Johnson presents a very clear danger to British politics. He represents an almost Donald Trump like quality of being able to do almost anything and remain popular. That being the case, he is the worst option when it comes to a prime minister to stand up for immigration. A Boris Johnson legacy would be bad news for international students.
If the UK is seeking a competitive edge heading into the future - and why wouldn’t it be? Surely keeping talented graduates in the country is a brilliant idea. Universities UK, the university body, said in a briefing to parliament: “The UK remains an extremely popular destination for international students, attracting more students from abroad except the much larger US”. With our native English language and excellent job prospects, the UK is indeed an ideal place for international students to travel to. With a return to excellent visa prospects, international students can add a lot of value to the UK. This needs to be harnessed at the top of government, yet there appears to be no taste for doing so currently. The Home Office has quite a lot of work to do currently and can unlikely facilitate the change. The government would need to fund it properly for it to work and this also seems unlikely, yet shortsighted.
The UK has a lot to offer international students and the relationship could be mutually beneficial. But there needs to be a huge shift in the government’s approach for this to happen - a prospect that seems unlikely. Would it be different if the government changed? Hard to say, but Labour is certainly more open to international immigration than the Conservatives are. Labour know that talking about increasing immigration will not please a vast amount of the electorate - it is believed that immigration was the difference maker for the Brexit referendum vote. Admitting to wanting to increase immigration is almost heresy in the UK and with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn already walking a political tightrope, it seems unlikely that he would seek to provoke any further ire.
As you can see the future does not look positive for the universities that are looking to assist the UK’s and their own futures. The British government has no interest in playing a politically scary game of increasing immigration and even a Labour government may not even deliver the changes necessary to help universities to expand their offerings. The relationship could really be a beneficial one, but there is little taste from the government to be too controversial and as we said: it is against Conservative ideology, despite the obvious benefits. For the time being we will need to be patient and see what the next critical few months mean for immigration. For EU citizens at least, it might be a very worrying time indeed.
While there is no suggestion of current EU migrants being forced out of the country, the future looks bleak for those who are not here already or have extended family in the UK. While it is tempting to treat the current negotiations as an adversarial battle, there are real people involved and the government needs to do its best for everyone. As for international students, I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the government finally realises what a positive step a new visa route could be.
If you are a student in the UK or are considering becoming one and are concerned about your future then please get in touch. Our immigration solicitors can help you to decide what is best for you and lay out all of the options that are available to you. With this information, you can then make empowered decisions about your immigration future.