Theresa May’s visa plan blocked but immigration battle far from won


Theresa May’s proposal to force non-EU international graduates to return to their home countries was blocked yesterday in a move headed by chancellor George Osborne and Conservative leadership. Osborne’s decision to rebuff May’s plan followed a powerful campaign run by Sir James Dyson and former universities minister David Willets. While the proposal appeared in the Conservatives’ 2010 general election manifesto, party officials have confirmed that it will not be invoked.

With the plan blocked, overseas graduates have four months to find a graduate position with a salary of £24,000 per year and apply for a work visa while still living in the UK. Under May’s proposed plan, non-EU graduates would have had to return home to apply for jobs and work visas, thus significantly reducing the UK’s number of highly skilled graduates in disciplines such as science and engineering.

Good news, it seems, for international students- but the issue is far from resolved. While May has been forced to back down by Conservative leadership, she has also presented Nigel Farage and the UKIP party with an incendiary issue which can be used either before the election or after the formation of a Conservative-UKIP government.

According to Ms. May, non-EU students are set to swamp Britain, with a possible 121,000 non-EU students arriving and only 51,000 leaving each year. The implications, apparently, are clear, and would work perfectly well as part of a UKIP campaign. But what of the reality- namely, the evident drop in non-EU student numbers?

Writing in the Guardian, professor of international higher education at UCL Institute of Education Simon Marginson highlights the fact that in 2012, the UK reduced the amount of time granted to non-EU graduates to allow them to find employment from two years to four months. This caused the number of graduates who were able to obtain extended visas to drop by 84% in one year, resulting in only 6,238 such visas being granted to non-EEA graduates in 2013. Equally, the UK’s decision to restrict the access of a broader spectrum of countries caused non-EU postgraduate student enrolment to suffer, with a 5% drop in non-EU postgraduate student enrolment in 2012-13.

The slowing of high-skill mobility in the UK is already taking its toll- and the impact would be still more detrimental if net migration decreases at a more rapid rate. On one hand, two generations of promotion of the UK as an international hub suffer; on the other, the economy is fundamentally undermined.

Marginson comments: “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.”

The UK is set to lose out significantly. In 2012-13, 43% of all postgraduates enrolled in UK engineering and technology were non-EU students, along with half of those studying maths. The country’s economy depends on a global pool of highly trained graduates. Barred from the UK by obstacles such as slow UK visa processing, those with valuable skill-sets are, unsurprisingly, seeping into more welcoming countries such as the US and a Canada. While UK international student enrolment decreased from 2013-14, the US enjoyed an increase of 8%.

While May’s student visa spat has abated, the UK’s immigration battle is yet to be won.