The hypocrisy of UK immigration policy

The focus on future caps on non-EU skilled immigrants camouflages many important aspects of the current points-based system – especially a series of unfair changes made by successive UK governments that already cap out existing skilled immigrants.
Nandita Dogra
28 October 2010

It was recently highlighted by a group of eight Nobel laureates that the UK’s immigration policies favour footballers over scientists.  Another neglected part of the same story is retrospective caps on skilled post-study workers (PSWs) already in the UK, on whom not one but two sets of detrimental changes have been applied within less than four months by both Labour and Conservative-LibDem governments.

The government expects a set of its immigrants already within UK to perform a special miracle – time travel. It has asked its skilled PSW Visa-holders to go back in time and conjure up additional earnings for the preceding/current annual period in order to retrospectively fulfil two revisions made to the conditions of the Tier 1 (General) points-based system, first on 6 April 2010 and then again on 19 July 2010.

The shrill voices against the ‘spongers’ of Britain and her welfare systems – asylum-seekers, family members of often working class first or second generation immigrant British citizens – are the staple of many debates on immigration.  But what about that segment of mostly ‘non-whites’ whom Britain, in its official rhetoric and policies, needs and actively seeks, usually in competition with other ‘developed’ nations?


Every international student pays tuition fees that are approximately four times what is paid by a British citizen. There are some exceptions depending on the college and degree with some Masters and MBA degrees, particularly in the high-ranked institutions, charging the same fees from both sets of students. Except for those who get scholarships and other help, there is no subsidy for international students.

Foreign students are, hence, a huge, often the major, source of income for many educational institutions. Those who complain about annual tuition fees of £3000 (that could now be raised to £7000) should take a moment to reflect on the struggles of those who have to meet such quadrupled sums. And before we begin arguing about rich ‘Arab’ and ‘American’ students, it should be stressed that international students are far from homogenous and come from different nations and financial backgrounds. What is clear is that the higher education fees structure implicitly weeds out any ‘sponging’ by, first, checking the financial credentials of potential students and then making the students do whatever it takes – beg, borrow, earn – to meet their education costs.

Foreign students also have no “recourse to public funds” i.e. any help from the government and the study period does not count towards rights of stay in the UK even if this period lasts 5 years or more, for example, for a doctorate. Yes there are many dodgy educational institutions that the government is not aware of (aware, but doing nothing about), but foreign students subsidise the country, not the other way around.  

Post-Study Work

On completion of higher education, an international student can stay on in the UK for a limited period, again without any rights to public funds or resident-ship under the ‘Post-study Work Visa’ (PSW). This rule was brought in only a few years back after comparative reviews with other nations, especially the USA, Australia and New Zealand, to discourage students from preferring these countries. Initially, it was open only to postgraduates and the period allowed was a year which was later increased to a maximum of 2 years. Anyone applying for PSW must fulfil specific criteria of education, financial backup and savings to take care of self and family, and must also hold an approved English language qualification.

PSW is strictly a transition period during which one has to unequivocally prove one’s ‘fitness’ and ‘worthiness’ to stay on in the UK. It is the time allowed to get sponsored by an employer (Tier 2) or meet the difficult conditions of Tier 1. The present system sifts the highly skilled from the non-skilled, and there is no arguing that it does require laying down certain criteria. The trouble is that instead of fixing these criteria for a reasonable period the government repeatedly keeps changing it to redefine ‘skills’. This makes the same person suddenly ineligible or ‘unskilled’ after already having started his/her period under the visa.

Over the last few years the fitness tests, namely the criteria for Tier 1 (General), have been made more and more stringent, with the rules being changed almost each year and even during the course of a current valid visa. The changes include increase in both the overall period of Tier 1 (General) from four to five years, as well as hikes in required income, resulting in litigations as many have lost their visas despite fulfilling the conditions for a significant part of the required period. These changes were brought in quietly by the New Labour government as a part of its tough on immigration policy, a fact neither the party concerned nor the new government would care to call attention to now.

In June this year the new government declared an immigration ‘cap’ with immediate effect and stricter conditions for Tier 1 (General). The general impression is that this cap and revised conditions would not affect the highly skilled who are already here but this is incorrect. Further, what very few realise is that the Tier 1 conditions had already been made extremely stringent in April by the outgoing Labour government and applied retrospectively to PSWs. The new government, totally ignoring the recent revisions, has brought in a second revision which means that two detrimental changes have been brought in within less than four months, flagrantly changing the conditions of those who are already here.

Points based assessment

To pass the points-based assessment and be accepted into the highly skilled worker category, you must score 95 points: a) 75 points for your attributes (age, qualifications, previous earnings, and experience in the United Kingdom), b) 10 points for English language; and, c) 10 points for available maintenance (funds). As it is the subtotal of these points that makes one qualify or disqualify any reduction in the points of one implies that one must increase the points for another which is often impossible during the given period.

The outgoing Labour government tightened Tier 1 and Tier 2 criteria on 6 April 2010. While total qualifying points for attributes were kept at 75, the sub-criterion for income was raised for all. Additionally, the already low points for a PhD were reduced from 50 to 45. This is in marked contrast to MBAs from select global institutions who straightaway get the minimum qualifying points of 75 (now 80) and get upgraded to Highly Skilled Worker on completion of their studies without having to prove themselves as PSWs first. No such distinction is made even for PhDs from the UK’s top institutions. In April, even those who were already here under PSW were asked to meet the new conditions. This was compounded by a second tightening of criteria on 19 July 2010. The Conservative-LibDem government did so by raising the qualifying points to 80 from 75 (total from 95 to 100) amounting to another extra earnings of £5 to 10,000 required of most applicants.

While there are countless examples, the unfairness and sheer absurdity of the changed rules applied to current PSWs can be illustrated through just one example of a 32 year old postgraduate from a UK university who began PSW last year, took up a job that fulfilled the previous Tier 1 conditions, but can only submit his application after he has 12 months’ salary/income documentation i.e. after the revisions have been introduced and applied to him. The 3 different minimum qualifying annual income levels that he has to produce to prove that he is ‘skilled’, depending on when he is able to submit his application, are shown below:

March 2010- £26000 (=25 points)

April 2010- £40,000 (=25 points)

July 2010- £50,000 (=30 points)

Within four months, to attain the same 25-30 points for earnings he has to earn nearly double the income till March 2010 - the qualifying income has been hiked first by 14,000 in April and then by another 10,000 in July, a total of £24,000.

The earnings range for qualifying points are also totally arbitrary with 5-10 points for each £5000 till the income limit of £39,999, then suddenly these are hiked by £10,000 for 5 points for the income range £40,000 to £49,999, and reduced once again to £5000 in the range £50-54999. This means that a substantial number of migrants falling in the approximate range of £30-50,000 income per annum will be greatly affected. Is it the case that the government already knows that this is the range most of PSWs are likely to fall under and hence a very secure source of extra taxes or the opportunity to force them to leave? 

It seems clear that the real and only motivation of all successive UK governments, irrespective of the party politics, is extracting more money. Each extra requirement of £10,000 income means approximately £2-4,000 additional tax income per annum. Since April 2010 the consecutive governments have already ensured that this is achieved not just once but twice, doubling the gain to the UK exchequer without any regard for fairness. And those who are unable to miraculously muster these extra incomes to meet the ever-changing and highly unrealistic and demanding conditions can be told to go home as UK has already pocketed the tuition fees at international rates, cheap labour and taxes they have contributed over the previous years. To many it is clearly a continuation of colonialism and never-ending colonial greed, albeit in a carefully hidden form. Scholars would also identify its stealthy operationalisation as an essential part of ‘Britishness’.

Skilled immigrants are a highly diverse lot, with skills and knowledge in a range of subjects and fields. The image of a high flier banker who can perhaps stay immune to the vagaries of immigration rules does not do justice to the much neglected Tier 1 (General) immigrant, an immigrant who is neither entitled to nor ever uses public funds and instead provides the much-needed skills and high taxes to fund UK’s ‘overstretched’ infrastructure. These apparent ‘bookkeeping’ changes are unjustly affecting many for whom the world could have been their oyster had they foreseen the volatile politics of immigration in Britain. The rules and their constant ‘strengthening’ and ‘smartening’ reveal not just the use of immigrants as pawns in party and racial politics, but also expose as questionable deeper claims of fairness the country makes globally. 

If the UK cannot appreciate the skilled ‘best and brightest’ it has sought from across the globe, it can at least stop being hypocritical and luring them here under a false pretext. No country has the right to pretend to invite skilled people, extract their skills and money, and then turn around to say it has changed its mind. It cannot be anyone’s prerogative, least of all of a nation that has gained immeasurably from the largest empire in recent history. Many words starting with the letter ‘c’ come to mind – cap, crafty, colonial.

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