The UK's crackdown on immigration: What are the measures and implications?

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Published on 2023-05-31 at 07:00 by Asaël Häzaq
The United Kingdom has experienced a significant increase in net migration since the Brexit vote in 2016, contrary to what was expected. The Conservative government is now trying to find other ways to curb the influx of immigrants.

Restrictions on student visas

One of the proposed measures is to impose restrictions on student visas. The Interior Minister, Suella Braverman, has been advocating for a drastic reduction in the number of international students, a measure supported by the Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak. British universities have tried, albeit without success, to convince the government to change its stance. On May 23, the UK government announced its strategy for reducing immigration, which includes new restrictions on student visas. These restrictions aim to "significantly reduce net migration by limiting the ability of international students to bring their family members."

The new version of the student visa will be implemented in January 2024 and will apply to all students except for postgraduate researchers. These restrictions are part of the UK's International Education Strategy, which focuses on reducing net migration while still attracting the best international students. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, net migration exceeded 500,000 between June 2021 and June 2022. While some of this increase is due to migrants from Ukraine and Hong Kong, the ONS highlights that nearly half a million student visas were granted during that period, and many of these students come with their families. The number of dependents (those granted dependent visas) has increased by 750% since 2019. In 2022 alone, 136,000 dependent visas were issued, compared to 16,000 in 2019. Suella Braverman aims to return to the pre-Covid level, significantly lower number of dependent visas.

No switch from ‘student' to ‘work' visa

Another change is that international students will no longer be allowed to change their visa status from student to work unless they have completed their studies. The government says it aims to protect international students from dishonest agents who exploit the student visa for purposes other than education. The government emphasizes that the student visa should primarily be used for acquiring knowledge and not as a means to find a job.

Welcoming the best students while imposing restrictions

The International Education Strategy aims to attract 600,000 international higher education students by 2030, but it focuses on choosing the students who have the greatest potential to contribute to the UK economy. This approach aligns with the points-based visa system, which prioritizes the best candidates. The Education Secretary highlights that attracting the best students benefits not only universities but also the economy and international relations.

British universities express concerns

Many in the academic community have expressed confusion and worry about these measures. Some criticize what they see as a disregard for international students and accuse the government of accepting their tuition fees while limiting their opportunities. International students are a significant financial asset for universities, generating over €30.4 billion in revenue in 2018-2019. Opponents argue that since students contribute to the country's economy, they should be allowed to bring their families with them.

The Russell Group, representing the largest universities in the UK, including Cambridge, Oxford, and Bristol, has voiced its concerns. Its Chief Executive highlights the benefits that international students bring, such as supporting the education of UK students and contributing to world-leading research. The group warns that the government's announcements may negatively impact universities' plans to diversify their international student population. Although the exception for postgraduate researchers is appreciated, including international students in the count of permanent migrants is seen as a drawback. Most international students are only in the UK temporarily, and targeting them would not be a step in the right direction. Currently, 32% of students at Russell Group universities are from abroad.

Are women disproportionately affected by the restrictions?

The Higher Education Policy Institute reveals that 69% of international students who come with their families are female. Contrary to the conservative narrative, these students are not bringing extended family members but rather their child and, if applicable, their spouse. Think tanks and university organizations highlight that a significant portion of female students, as well as male students, fall within the age range of 25 to 45. The profile of international students doesn't always fit the stereotypical image of a young student. Many international students are mature, married, and may or may not have children. Preventing them from reuniting with their families would be equivalent to denying them the opportunity to study.

Critics argue that this approach does not make sense. In fact, the government itself implemented a special policy, such as special visas for graduates, to attract and retain foreign talent from Commonwealth countries. Researchers believe that this policy has led to an increase in the number of mature international students. They view the announced restrictions as a means of excluding female students, who are highly valued international talents.

Mixed response to seasonal visas

As the UK struggles with a labor shortage, it has turned to foreign workers, especially in the agricultural sector. Rishi Sunak has announced plans to issue several thousand seasonal visas for this sector, which is severely impacted by the labor shortage. However, Suella Braverman, who is determined to reduce immigration in all sectors, did not seem pleased with this announcement. At the Conservative National Conference on May 15, Braverman suggested that the UK should train its own seasonal workers to reduce reliance on immigration. The same response was given to address the transport crisis caused by a shortage of lorry drivers. However, Braverman herself has faced criticism for a potential breach of the ministerial code, which has weakened her position.

The announcement by Sunak received a lukewarm response from farmers. The government plans to issue 45,000 seasonal worker visas in 2024, the same number as this year. Representatives of the agricultural sector had called for 70,000 visas. They condemn the "Brexit effect," which led to €70 million worth of unharvested crops last year due to a labor shortage. They also note that British workers are reluctant to take on these jobs, considering them low-paying and restrictive. British workers represent only 4% of the seasonal workforce.

Enforcing preference for British workers in companies?

Will British companies be compelled to prioritize hiring nationals? This is a proposal by the Labour Party, which aims to abolish the "-20% rule." Under this rule, companies can pay foreign workers 20% less than the standard wage during labor shortages. As a result, British companies tend to rely more on cheaper foreign labor, which increases their profitability. Abolishing the -20% rule would require companies to pay foreign workers the same as British workers. The Labour Party sees this as a way to encourage employers to train and employ local people instead of relying heavily on foreign labor.

In January, two-thirds of Britons expressed support for a new referendum. For those who were disappointed with Brexit, the issue is far from resolved. The Sunak government, now weakened, is banking on a rightward shift to regain strength. The Conservatives had aimed to reduce net migration to minus 100,000 per year, a goal that was never achieved and eventually abandoned in 2019. However, it remains a recurring theme in government speeches. Nonetheless, researchers suggest that the new measures announced by the government are unlikely to have a significant impact.