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International students versus the UK government: Students score first victory

There has been no shortage of coverage on the UK government’s ‘war’ on immigration and international students have been caught in the cross-fire more than once already. It almost seems like the government is trying its hardest to discourage international student from coming to the UK despite the proclaimed importance assigned to the UK higher education ‘industry’. Although some of the government’s efforts to weed out non-genuine international student applicants are laudable (see ACA Newsletter - Education Europe, July 2012), when combined with the more stringent rules on post-study work rights of international students introduced earlier this year (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, March 2012), there is little surprise that the UK has dropped in the higher education destination wish-list of many potential students and their paying parents.

Many of the developments of the past year can be linked back to the government’s populist drive to reduce net migration, which at the moment still includes international students, regardless of the collateral damage this might cause to the reputation of the UK higher education sector. Despite the fact that this has been strongly criticised and showed as a highly detrimental approach to solving the migration conundrum (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, May 2012), the government remains adamant in following through with this policy.

However, a recent case decided by the Supreme Court might finally slow the government at least slightly down. Although highly procedural in nature, it shows that in the past three years, both the previous and current governments before and following the 2010 elections were more than happy to bend the rules and even the law to gain a few cheap votes on the immigration agenda. Mr. Alvi, a former student from Pakistan was denied the renewal of his post-study work permit and has been challenging the UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) decision since the introduction of the point-based system in 2009. After three years spent at courts, the final decision came down to the fact that the government-issued Policy Guidance outlining the specifics defining the rules for granting of work permits should have been approved by the Parliament. Otherwise, any such document could have only been interpreted as how the Secretary of State “proposes to control immigration” and not as the law.

The implications of this case might be more wide-reaching than just international students demanding the re-instatement of their work rights. Another case that is pending in front of the Supreme Court concerns the New London College which has had its licence to recruit international students withdrawn using the same procedure as the guidance regulating student post-study work rights. Given the success of the students, it is highly likely that the court will rule in favour of the college as well. However, it remains to be seen what the repercussions of both cases will be in reality. In the meantime, the government has rushed the questionable guidance through the Parliament as a damage control measure and many students have moved on with their lives rather than wait for the UK judicial apparatus to curb the government’s appetite for rash changes to the immigration system. Nonetheless, the message sent to international students was clear – you are only welcome to pay exorbitant fees, not to stay.

UK Supreme Court UKBA (amended rules July 2012)