These are times of uncertainty and while the primary concern is for public health, without further assurances from the UK Government, the vulnerability of being subject to immigration control can compound other worries during any crisis. The large-scale postponement, suspension and cancellation of social activity, including working and studying commitments, poses some important questions about satisfying the conditions of student visas.
UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) requires all Tier 4 institutions (schools, colleges, higher education facilities and universities) to keep a record of sponsored Tier 4 students including their attendance levels. This is required in order to meet their sponsor duties towards the UKVI when sponsoring students to study with them.
There are consequences to students who are absent from studies or cannot complete their studies before their Tier 4 visa expires. If a student misses 10 consecutive expected points of contact, without the Tier 4 institution’s authorisation, the guidance normally requires them to withdraw their sponsorship of the student. If their sponsorship is withdrawn from the student, the student will have no longer be able to continue their studies in the UK.
What about absences due to Covid-19?
The current circumstances being exceptional, specific government guidance that addresses Covid-19, last updated on 27 February 2020 and since overshadowed by other announcements, has been issued (last updated on the 27th February) gives us some parameters to work with:
‘Some Tier 4 students or Tier 2/5 employees may be prevented from attending their studies or employment due to illness, the need to serve a period of quarantine or the inability to travel due to travel restrictions caused by coronavirus’.
This covers students who are taken ill by Covid-19, with absences authorised by the institution, as well as those whose movements have been restricted due to the threat. It goes on to say:
‘The Home Office recognises the current situation is exceptional and will not take any compliance action against students or employees who are unable to attend their studies/work due to the coronavirus outbreak, or against sponsors which authorise absences and continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences for this reason. The Home Office will keep this under review, especially if the length of absences mean a potential repeat of period of studies become necessary’.
This means Tier 4 institutions do not need to report students who are absent due to Covid-19, as long as those absences are authorised by them. This also means the institution should not withdraw their sponsorship of the student.
In light of the guidance and given that the situation is developing and changing constantly, it is advisable that students keep a record of any emails or letters sent by their institution, which confirm (in writing) the latest advice on, or authorisation of attendances, while Covid-19 is posing health and logistical issues to life in the UK.
What about institution closures or online studying?
The above guidance would apply if a Tier 4 institution decides to close completely or partially. This will be fine for short-term absences due to closures. Some Tier 4 institutions are deciding to close premises and transfer all teaching online – in these cases, they need to ensure they are confident the students are ‘attending’ online sessions in order to maintain their UKVI duties.
However, if the absences become so long that the student is unable to complete their studies before their visa expires then the institution will have no choice but to cancel their sponsorship. No one should be in this situation yet and we expect - given that this appears to be a long term situation - the above government Covid-19 guidance to be updated to inform us how they intend to deal with longer term absences.
We will update you when the government’s Covid-19 guidance is updated.
On 11 September 2019, the UK government announced an extension of the post-study visa rules. International students who complete their degree at a recognised institution will be able to stay in the UK for two years after graduation, increasing their chances of finding long-term employment upon completion of their studies.
The current immigration policy gives students just four months to find work after graduating. As the country is preparing itself for a fall in recruitment from the EU for education and employment alike when freedom of movement ends after Brexit, the announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by both the education sector, which only benefits from attracting more international students who pay higher tuition fees, and the business sector alike.
Grace Kuperman, a US national, graduated with a First-Class Politics BA from a Russel Group university. She is now writing her dissertation for her MSc in Security Studies at University College London.
“For certain sectors, such as British politics, I understand to an extent to why British employees are preferred, but I have studied here for almost four years now and I feel as though certain fields in the UK are missing out on valuable potential employees due to visa restrictions.”
The pressure of the current rules on international students in the UK should not be underestimated. One recent graduate, Tracy Jawad, moved back to Beirut, Lebanon in October 2019 when her student visa expired. She studied Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
“I think that a lot of people from the same background as me just jumped into masters to avoid having to leave the country. I decided not to do that because I wanted to get some work experience first, and because a masters degree is a substantial investment.
I was applying for graduate jobs from October 2018 onwards. It was an extremely difficult and unfair process; often job descriptions did not specify that they would only accept UK, EU, or even Commonwealth citizens. Only when I got rejected, after having gone through the whole application process, would I find out. Even then, I was the one who had to reach out and ask for feedback as to why I didn’t get the job, and companies would then respond my application was side-lined because an international student is less employable than a home or EU applicant.”
The Home Office publicises the reforms to the rules as an answer to the problem Tracy outlines: a new way of attracting young international talent. Home Secretary Priti Patel championed the extended post-study visa as a “new way for talented international students, whether in science and maths or technology and engineering, to study in the UK and then gain valuable work experience as they go on to build successful careers.” However, there are multiple caveats.
The Home Secretary’s enthusiastic announcement fails to mention that the two-year extension is not a “new route” into graduate success. It is simply a revocation of the current policy, which was controversially put in place by Theresa May in 2012 as part of the hostile environment policy against illegal immigrants in the UK, and which has been contested ever since.
Tracy: “If there is such a hostile environment against international students, then UK universities should not be allowed to use us as poster boys, or as alluring marketing ploys. All you ever hear about Queen Mary is how diverse it is, but ultimately, as one of those people bringing diversity to the university, I have not benefitted from Queen Mary’s international community; I’m back in Beirut now.”
The new policy will not apply retroactively; only students graduating in 2021 and thereafter will be able to access the scheme. This puts current students at a competitive disadvantage with future students.
MM, who wishes to remain anonymous, moved to London from Egypt to study Business Management at undergraduate level and is now reading a MSc in International Marketing at King’s College London, explains:
“I don’t think I got a fair shot at finding a job in the UK, definitely not. Due to the preference for EU and UK graduates, job offers clearly state that they do not sponsor an international working visa or permit. Because of this, I didn’t even apply for jobs within the UK, as I felt like there was no point. Instead I embarked on a masters degree to have more specific qualifications within my industry, and hopefully that will increase my employability.”
“I’m happy my younger sister might have better chances at finding a career within the UK should she choose to study here, but for me, it is too little, too late.”
Tracy, who will be eligible for the two-year extension should she start her masters next academic year, says:
“When I heard of the post-study visa extension, I was mostly really happy for myself, that I did not immediately started my masters upon graduation. Thanks to my decision to move back and rethink my options, I will now have two years after my masters degree. That is such a relief, because finding a graduate job is not something that can be done in 4 months.”
“For the UK more broadly, more people are now going to want to study there because the new rules show a willingness to invest rather than just make money out of international students. Plus, although there will still be a cost to hiring an international graduate, it will be easier for students to find companies which are more likely to take on that financial burden.”
However, even given extra time, international graduates in certain sectors will still be disadvantaged. Grace attests to this: “Fields that are flooded with large multi-national corporations, like finance, can afford to hire international students. For me, who is interested in international organisations and politics, it is much harder. NGO’s are famously short on funding and prefer British applicants above all else.”
Tracy confirms: “STEM majors are more likely to get jobs in the UK than humanities majors. When I spoke to other Lebanese people who were applying to jobs at the same time as me, but with Engineering or Computer Science degrees, they were clearly more likely to at least get interviews. It requires funds to sponsor foreign students and unfortunately, humanities organisations do not have as much money as STEM companies. That is not how it should be.”
As the new rules apply to all non-British students, they will bring EU students to a level playing field with international students. This would not only boost the economy, but also avoid a brain drain to countries whose rules are more relaxed, and let their graduates stay for longer periods of time post-graduation. At least that’s the idea. In practice, EU students will face many challenges: tuition fees, already elevated for international students, will probably rise further for those from the EU, until they are equal to international levels. Meanwhile, EU funding and the future of Erasmus after Brexit are all up in the air.
It is unfair to make international students pay almost twice as much in tuition fees, without any guarantee of a job afterwards, or at the very least the time to look for one. From that perspective, the post-study visa extension is more like a bare minimum than “a transforming new way for talented international students to build successful careers in the UK,” as it has been described by Ms. Patel. Instead of slightly improving international students’ perks at the cost of dragging EU student benefits down, the government’s aim should be to increase all graduate opportunities. University graduates benefit the UK just as much as the other way around. That should be enough of a reason to end the marketisation of education once and for all, and although a two-year extension may seem like a step in the right direction on the face of it, it is not the end of the road for international or EU students.