United Kingdom: Enter foreign workers, exit international students?

Expat news
  • crowded street in London
Published on 2023-03-15 at 13:01 by Asaël Häzaq
With the red carpet and plenty of attention deployed, foreign workers are welcome and highly expected in the United Kingdom. The British government is thus responding to the pressing demands of British employers facing an acute labor shortage. That comes as a surprise move as the UK, at the same time, seems to be tightening the rules for international students who want to study in the country. What should we understand of the British strategy?

Is immigration the answer to labor shortages in the UK?

No one could have imagined in 2016 that the UK would have become one of the champions of economic immigration today! Despite Brexit, foreign workers are more than welcome. However, it's worth recalling that one of the great promises of Brexit defenders was precisely to reform the UK's immigration policy to limit the entry of foreign workers (especially Europeans). The points-based visa system was intended to discourage companies from hiring foreigners, thus boosting employment among locals. But recent studies show that Brexit has significantly contributed to the severe labor shortages in the country for the past two years.

Businesses were the first to claim more flexibility to curb the labor crisis, but the country currently has a record of more than one million job vacancies. They believe only economic immigration can improve the situation. Britons also understood this. According to a recent survey published in The Guardian, only 29 percent of Britons still think employment is the national priority. In 2009, they made up 65% of the responders.

Such turnaround can be observed at the highest decision levels of the government. The Sunak government recently unveiled its new strategy to relax the rules on the recruitment of foreign workers. According to the Financial Times newspaper, one of the first sectors to be affected would be the Construction industry, which has been suffering from a severe labor shortage since Brexit. Construction companies need more masons, plasterers, carpenters, and roofers, and such shortages do have a negative impact on their economic development. Under these circumstances, the government is considering relaxing the visa rules to allow construction employers to hire foreign workers more easily. The list of positions that are under tension will also be extended to include other professions to make it easier for businesses to hire foreign workers.

What about international students in the UK?  

The British government's stance is quite confusing. As the row grows between the government and the opposition, no one seems to get a clear picture of Sunak's strategy while he blows hot and cold on the immigration issue. 

At the end of January, The Times newspaper revealed that the government was considering reducing the length of stay for international students after their studies. If this plan were adopted, these students would only be able to stay on British territory for 6 months, compared to 2 years currently. But at the same time, the government is also considering increasing the legal working hours from 20 to 30 hours per week for both British and international students as a response to ongoing labor shortages. On a side note, let's not forget that the 20 hours-per-week limit had been set to protect students, especially international students, from potential abuses by unscrupulous employers. It now seems that economics has won over students' rights.

So where does the plan to reduce the number of international students on British territory stand? Well, it seems quite alive with British Interior Minister Suella Braverman promoting Sunak's plan to reduce overall immigration to the country. Out of the 1.1 million immigrants who arrived in the UK in 2022, 476,000 were students. However, the Department for Education is vehemently opposed to Braverman's motion, pointing out that tuition fees paid by international students are crucial for funding universities. Universities UK, a group representing 140 British universities, shares the same belief. The group fears "serious consequences" for the UK's reputation and overall economic growth. While businesses are of the same opinion, they question the government's strategy, which says yes to the international students' workforce, but no to their long-term stay.

The "Brexit chaos"

Political opponents, as well as the media, have not been kind to the Sunak government, using terms such as "Brexit chaos" or "Brexit whirligig”. They consider its policy "baffling", not to say "unintelligible". MP and president of the Labor Movement, Stella Creasy, believes that “The government is unable to implement an immigration and asylum system that works.”

In an interview with the Huffington Post, she claims that Brexit, which was initially presented as a "win-win" operation, is revealing its true nature. According to Creasy, everyone loses out with the new visa policy. In fact, British and foreign workers are all losing jobs and opportunities. The President of the Labor Movement further stated that it was urgent to reform the entire visa system instead of a short-term vision focusing only on labor shortages. Instead, she proposes to develop a long-term plan which will look beyond shortages and aim at building more sustainable economic and social growth for the country.

The damning consequences are already being felt. European students are currently half as many since Brexit. While the pandemic and inflation may explain some of these numbers, Brexit weighs heavily in the current situation. British universities had 64,120 European students at the start of the 2020-2021 academic year but took in only 31,400 at the start of 2021-2022. Other consequences of Brexit meant that Europeans eventually lost their advantage. They used to pay the same fees as the British (about 10,000 euros per year maximum) but now have to pay the same tuition fees as international students, up to more than 40,000 euros. These are very exorbitant fees, which dampen students' aspirations.

Sunak's strategy to soothing tensions 

Many people, including those formerly pro-Brexit, now regret the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union. Prime Minister Sunak, on the other hand, is blatantly insisting. In an interview with Sunday Time at the end of February, he explained: "I believe in Brexit, I voted for Brexit, I campaigned for Brexit, and I want to show that Brexit works for every part of the United Kingdom." He has been holding the same speech since November 2022, when rumors spread that he wanted to soften Brexit to get closer to the European Union. On Tuesday, March 7, he presented a bill against illegal immigration that displayed his determination. And so much for international law. With this bill, illegal immigrants coming to the country would not be able to apply for asylum. The law would make it easier to detain them, deport them, and ban them for life from returning to the territory.

The meeting with Macron last Friday in Paris, as part of the first Franco-British summit since 2018, gave a new insight into the Sunak strategy. It is already known that the two heads of state want to act towards appeasement after years of tension.