It is presumably the case that many international students come to study in the UK because British education has a high reputation. Currently around 450,000 international students per year are coming here, and most come under the points-based system Tier 4 Student route. China, the world’s second-largest economy, has in the last year sent over 100,000 students to the UK. Even the United States – whose education system is also highly rated – has sent around 15,000, and a large number have also come from India.
The UK student market must be judged a success. As politicians say in a vague sort of way it “forges international relations” with important economies and, more specifically, we can say that it brings a lot of overseas money into the UK economy.
But, looking beyond, whatever students’ original motivations in coming to study in the UK it is and always has been the case that some of them want to stay on, find work and build a career. They may find, after having experienced life in the UK for a few years, that the culture is suitable for them.
But here we get into politics in a big way. British Governments over the last few years have had a sort of policy to reduce net annual migration to the UK to the “tens of thousands”. It was only a sort of policy, not a real one, because as everybody knows it was entirely unrealistic. But still it hung around in the background, and it was particularly associated with Theresa May, previously Home Secretary and recently Prime Minister.
But there was something of a dichotomy surrounding the subject. The government said that it was not against immigration but it wanted to be selective about it. They wanted to attract good immigrants, not bad ones. Good immigrants in this context meant, according to various Government spokespeople, “the brightest and best”. This must presumably mean the most highly educated and highly skilled.
Surely this category should include international students who have graduated in the UK? Well, up to a point we suppose, but a few years ago the Home Office abolished the Tier 1 Post-Study Work visa, which enabled graduate students to stay on in the UK for two years and work without restriction.
This might seem rather counterintuitive but the Home Office said at the time that this visa route was being misused and did not successfully provide a bridge between study and a stable high-level career, which had been its intention. It was alleged that in some or many cases Tier 1 Post-Study Workers were doing jobs like “flipping hamburgers”. Flipping hamburgers must of course be deemed a necessary and important role in society, but the Home Office felt that this was not right. What they wanted was that students got jobs that reflected their educational level.
There is a political dilemma here but it must be said that graduate students face formidable difficulties. It is not so easy to move from student to highly-skilled worker. Students may have got superb qualifications but of course what employers really want is experience. It is not a great deal surprising that many students found themselves in the hamburger field.
The immigration rules allow Tier 4 graduate students to switch in-country to Tier 2 skilled worker – but this requires the student (a) to be offered a suitable job and (b) their employer to have, or acquire, a Tier 2 sponsor licence.
It is all quite complicated and, typically, students have only four months or six months to stay on in the UK after their course is finished. If they don’t leave the UK by then they become overstayers and no longer eligible to apply for visas in-country.
But some change may be afoot. The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, is recently on record as saying that he wants to see a “flexible, sensible attitude” about this. He also says that “It makes no sense to send some of the brightest and most enterprising people in the world straight home after their time here.”
The uninitiated may wonder why, if he is Home Secretary and thus in charge of the Home Office, he cannot just go ahead and change the rules. But the realities of British politics dictate that the Home Secretary has to stay friends with the Prime Minister. However, Theresa May has resigned as Prime Minister and somebody else will take her place. And somebody else, depending on who it is, may have a different approach.
It now appears very possible that something similar to the Tier 1 Post-Study Work visa may come back into existence at some point. In the meantime, if you are struggling – or contemplating struggling – to switch from student to worker you might want to get advice about this rather tricky subject from a good lawyer.