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20th Jan 2021
When Theresa May stood in front of a Conservative Party conference in 2015 claiming she "doesn't care" what the lobbyists say, in regards to overseas students staying beyond their visas, who knew she would be stepping into Number 10 in less than a years' time.
With Theresa May set to become the new Prime Minister later today there may be concerns among universities over her somewhat historically hard stance on international students.
In the past, policies imposed by Ms May's Conservative Government, such as the raising of fees chargeable to non-EU students, arguably led to the first fall in international postgraduate students in UK for 29 years between 2010-2013.
Theresa May has since put forward a series of controversial policies. Among them were plans to send international students home immediately after graduating, effectively forcing them to apply for further study or employment from outside of the UK. This plan was subsequently blocked by leading Tory MP's but could be revived now she is taking the helm.
Also of note was the increasing of financial provisions, which meant that students had to prove they could support themselves for up to nine months or the full length of the course, depending on which was shorter. This led to some students needing to prove they had a bank balance in the tens of thousands of pounds (on top of already increasing tuition fees).
Ms May has also refused to remove students from net immigration targets and the stance looks unlikely to materially change now given the government's failed immigration policy, and the somewhat soft target of international students.
There is also evidence to suggest that government is not afraid in implementing further controversial policies when it comes to meeting its immigration targets. The decision to raise the minimum threshold for all skilled workers from outside the EU applying to settle permanently, who have been living here for less than 10 years, to £35,000 has caused concerns amongst professions such as teaching and I.T with workers potentially facing deportation.
The Brexit curve ball
Since the outcome of the referendum held in June it seems Theresa May's stance has not changed, refusing to guarantee the future immigration status of EU nationals in the UK, who are estimated to make up 16% of academic staff at British universities.
However, is this latest tactic more of a political play than a hardnosed stance?
By not announcing guarantees for EU nationals it could be argued she has reduced the likelihood of an influx of EU nationals coming to study in the UK prior to any EU renegotiations.
Anecdotal reports do suggest Theresa May can be somewhat of a tough negotiator, however with recent Brexit events this may actually benefit the sector in some instances.
For example, reports are emerging that UK academics are being discriminated post-Brexit due to the uncertainty surrounding future funding from Britain and are facing pressure to abandon collaborations with European partners.
Given that recent studies - including one by Universities UK - found that EU funded research supported 8,864 direct jobs in the university sector and contributed nearly £836m in economic output, achieving Britain's continued participation in the EU's research and innovation programme must be high on the agenda.
In addition, according to a study by London First and PwC, international students in London reportedly generate net gains of £2.3bn p.a. towards the UK economy. Despite the apparent economic benefit, added complexities and costs as a result of recent policies has made it harder for students to find work after university, with some employers not willing to stump up the costs associated with international student visa sponsorship.
Current government policies might well give the impression that the UK is closed for business to international students, however, a post-Brexit Britain may have to soften its stance to mitigate against economic repercussions.
Can Theresa May afford to continue on her previous policy direction and take an ever harder stance on students given their significant contribution to the economy? Politics can be a fine balancing act and the pay off between economic prosperity and immigration policy is a delicate one.
Legal Loophole Sees the Home Office Challenge EU Students Right to Stay in the UK
There are reports that the Home Office has been rejecting EU students right to permanently reside in the UK due to a legal technicality.
Cases have emerged in which EU students studying in the UK for a total of five years have had their permanent resident application rejected because they did not have the correct compulsory sickness insurance in place during their studies.
Currently you can apply for a permanent residence card after living in the UK for 5 years. However, in order to do so you must provide proof of compulsory sickness insurance during your time in the UK.
Although a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) provides insurance, it is only applicable if you do not intent to stay in the UK permanently.
Students who have held an EHIC, therefore cannot use this within their permanent residency application or those that do face the possibility of their application being rejected due to this legal technicality.
In 2011 the UK Border Agency outlined what would be considered acceptable proof of comprehensive sickness insurance, meaning those entering higher education at that time may soon find out they cannot settle in UK on a permanent basis.
Given the time and resources spent educating these students it could be argued that, given their level of education, they could offer a substantial contribution to the UK's society. However, as we have already seen, allowing EU students to stay causes another political headache in the drive to bring down total immigration.
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