As we know it is essentially parliamentary arithmetic that has caused the Brexit chaos, along with the fissuring of traditional parties along broadly Leave/Remain lines (though it is a lot more complicated than that of course). The rise of new groupings, and the breaking of new constitutional ground in terms of the relationship between Parliament and Government, have also created new opportunities beyond Brexit, however. One such area, where there is very broad cross-party consensus, is that of visa and migration policy for students.
You will be aware that since the advent of the coalition government almost a decade ago, Universities UK, and individual vice-chancellors (myself among them), have been arguing strongly that regarding students as immigrants is a fundamental misconception. Put simply, there is overwhelming evidence that more than 98% of international students who come to the UK complete their studies, comply with all visa requirements and leave the UK at the end of that period. Creating an unwelcoming environment for international students, making it difficult and expensive for them to obtain a visa, and abolishing the option of a two-year working visa once they have graduated, never made any sense in policy terms. The aim was clearly to help reduce net migration to under 100,000, but this was never going to work since students have never made any significant contribution to that target. They may not have left the UK within a year, but they certainly did so in due course, and so any effect on net migration was marginal, temporary and only related to differing cohort sizes over time. The strength of our arguments – including strong evidence from surveys showing that international students are not a significant cause of public concern – helped to persuade six select committees, but gained little traction with the Home Office, or, since 2016, with No. 10. Admittedly there has been some movement since the 2017 election, but not enough to make a real difference.
The events of the last few months, however, have opened a real window of opportunity. Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central and a very hard-working supporter of our positions on this matter is working with Jo Johnson, Conservative MP for Orpington, and former universities minister, to propose a significant amendment to the Immigration Bill. This would require the government to seek parliamentary approval for any future cap on international student numbers, and would restore the two-year period for the post-study work visa. The latter measure is critical. The government’s new International education strategy shows a strong level of ambition for the sector, but the proposal contained therein to extend the post-study work visa to six months does not go far enough. The proposed amendment would certainly help to restore our competitive position and would be welcomed by the students that we recruit from round the world. The amendment has not only cross-party support, but also encouragement from senior figures across the Brexit divide. The opportunity for Parliament to compel the government to accept this amendment is a critical one and it always helps if MPs receive letters or emails from constituents urging them to support particular measures. If you want to know more about this issue, please see here for further information.
While I am on the subject, I’m pleased to say that given the costs which new and existing colleagues from outside the EU may face as they negotiate the visa process, we are introducing an interest free loan scheme to assist with the costs associated with immigration. The interest free loan scheme is open to all international staff who incur immigration costs as a result of either taking up employment, or continuing their employment with the University. The loan will also cover dependants, and further information is available here.
A further quite unexpected consequence of the Brexit impasse is that it now looks likely, and certainly possible, that the UK will be participating in elections to the European Parliament, a process which is clearly widely being interpreted as a barometer of opinion on Brexit itself. Nobody can vote unless they are on the electoral register of course, so please take the opportunity to let students know how they can register if they wish to exercise their democratic rights. Further information is available here.
Before I close, one final point in relation to Brexit. So long as we remain members of the EU it is worth continuing to apply for grants and take part in all the mechanisms available to member states. This approach has served us very well so far and I would urge colleagues to continue to take advantage of these opportunities wherever possible.
With best wishes