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UK: And now for some immigration reform …

As if the saga of higher education finance reform were not dramatic enough, on 23 November, the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, released word of two major developments in immigration policy with potentially significant effects on higher education.  The first is a “raft of new measures that will strictly control the numbers that can come to the UK and work from outside Europe”. The second is the launch of a public consultation on student visa issues.

On the worker visa front, new rules to take effect beginning in April 2011 will introduce a first-ever annual limit of 21 700 for those coming into the UK under the highly skilled and skilled routes, known as Tier 1 and Tier 2 visas, respectively. The Tier 1 visas will now be allocated only to individuals of “exceptional talent” and a total of just 1 000 per year will be available. Meanwhile, Tier 2 visas will only be available to individuals holding graduate-level degrees. The government has openly committed to reducing net migration in the country, and the adjustments to the Tier 1 and Tier 2 routes is seen as “just one part of a package of measures” moving in this direction. Student visas will be the next category under consideration. The Home Secretary has announced an eight-week public consultation to seek input on the introduction of a “more selective and more robust” student visa system. Under consideration are tougher criteria such as English language competence, limitations on students’ rights to work and sponsor dependants, and proof of academic progression before approving extension of studies.

Reacting to these announcements, Universities UK registered appreciation for the government’s responsiveness to the research community with regard to the need to ensure an appropriate route into the UK for individuals with exceptional talent in science and academia. At the same time, it registered concern about the “arbitrary cap on this route as talent is rather difficult to quantify on a numerical basis”. Meanwhile, stakeholder groups active in international education in the UK express support for any efforts to stamp out abuse in the student visa category, but caution that the assessment of issues and the ultimate response by the government should be nuanced and effectively take into account the benefits international students bring to the UK.

UK Home Office