The proposed cap on international students is discriminatory and a danger to British education

The government has announced that its cap on migrant workers coming into Britain from outside the EU cannot be met unless a cap is also placed on flows of international students. This proposed policy risks discriminating against students on grounds of nationality and threatens the cultural richness found in Britain's education system
Valérie Hartwich
31 December 2010

The migration cap was a Tory flagship electoral promise, and as such there was little surprise in seeing it swiftly implemented. On 24th November, the Coalition government introduced the first part of its permanent cap on the number of migrant workers coming into Britain from outside the EU, with aims to bring the number down to 21,700 from next year. On 7th December, it was announced that this objective cannot be met unless international students flows are capped.

Home Secretary Theresa May has therefore begun a consultation process on the capping of the student route into Britain. She pleaded that the only way to reach the governmental migration objective is by cutting down the high volume of international students coming for sub-degree courses who tend to remain after their initial visa runs out. By implying that such students are overstayers and potential abusers, and simply renew their visas not to continue their studies but to stay on (and perhaps work), May and immigration minister Damian Green have spun a little white lie. Echoed by the media and internalised by many citizens, they will find this terribly useful in facing opposition from the education sector. The argument of a public mandate will also come in handy, with the government able to present itself as the mere representative of public sentiment, facing naïve liberal thinkers.

But education professionals know well that many young people who first came here to study English in fact go on to Further or Higher Education in the UK, and see their great social, cultural and economical value. Given what they contribute, it seems only fair to cut them a good deal. After all, doesn't the customer who pays a high price deserve good treatment? In theory yes, but it seems the Coalition government do not think so. 

In an effort to prevent international students staying on in the UK illegally, the proposals suggest redirecting lower level international students staying for short durations towards the visitors visa route (known by the Border Agency as tier 5). The existing post-study work scheme would also be scrapped, so unless international graduates succeed in securing their own tier 1 or 2 visa, it would be illegal for them to work after finishing their studies. And students could be subjected to tougher conditions during their stay. These include being limited to work on campus during term weekdays, where positions are few and mostly unrelated to their topic of study. The UK, and especially London, are not cheap places to live, and many of these migrants will have already made sacrifices in order to cover tuition fees and the maintenance funds required by the UK Border Agency. They often have to work whilst studying to cover their needs. With these restrictions, international students could be made even more vulnerable to loan sharks and other financial predators – that is, if they are not dissuaded entirely from coming. 

Another bright idea has found its way into the proposals: an academic progress tracking system, handled by the university of the student in question, in order to ensure that their continued studies in the UK are no excuse to remain in the country, but follow a progression in terms of degrees. Academic progression need not be a straightforward path from undergraduate to masters on to PhD levels. A well-rounded education in a particular field might require studying two separate masters. If the government imposes this condition it will impact negatively on some international students. 

A further proposal would infringe upon the private lives of foreigners studying in the UK. It has been suggested that dependents be prevented from accompanying those international students on a visa shorter than 12 months, thus cutting off those students from their families. For example, a mature graduate with a family and small children might want to take a specialist one-year course and have the funding, but as this lasts for nine months so he or she will be deterred from coming.

Last but not least, the proposed cap could see the introduction of low and high-risk migrant categories receiving either a 'light touch' or a more thorough treatment of their applications. At this stage, the method for defining these categories is unknown, but it seems reasonable to think it could be based on previously accumulated evidence of forgery and abuse cases by country. A precedent for this approach was the freezing of all student applications from Nepal, Bangladesh and Northern India due to a series of sham marriage cases, which started in January 2010 and lasted several months. It is unfair to penalise all applicants falling into the high-risk category because of a few rotten apples. More to the point, it is discriminatory to prospective students from regions or countries where corruption, state failure or inefficiency plague administration, making it hard for individuals to comply with UK regulations. In some countries it is difficult to obtain a birth certificate, because registries are badly kept, if at all. In others, such as Iraq, the banking system is fragile, when existent, and providing account balance sheets can prove a huge challenge.

It is likely that the applicants’ age, gender and country of origin would be taken into account under these proposals, seen as functions of their likelihood to abuse the system. Off the record confessions of immigration agents describe the stereotypical abuser as a young, black male. Whilst it might be true that, pushed by economical necessity, many seek to work in the West to support their families and communities, turning this knowledge into a policy has a hint of official racism. The UK and its Higher Education system have been known for their multiculturalism, which students often praise as one of the best things about their experience in the country. Discriminating between applicants in the manner suggested could lead to a culturally impoverished studying environment, with specific countries decreasingly represented – such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and some African countries. At a time when the world is undoubtedly global, these proposals would risk narrowing the range of cultural debate and exchange in Britain’s universities.

As Faiza Shaheen has argued, the migration cap, and the government’s approach to enforcing it, will do little to combat the social ills faced by the United Kingdom. Like the olden days when leeches were a popular medical treatment, this cure may do more harm than good.

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