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Mixed response to the MAC report on Tier 4 student rules

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Briefings


On 11 September 2018 the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) released its report on the impact of international students in the UK, in which it makes several policy recommendations to the Home Office on the current system for Tier 4 international students. The report has been met largely with disappointment within the education sector as it does not recommend that students be taken out of the net migration figures or that a generic post-study work scheme is re-instituted. On 4 September 2018, shortly before the MAC report was published, Universities UK issued its proposal for an improved post-study work system for international graduates, which proposed that graduates of any programme of study at an eligible UK university lasting for longer than 11 months should be able to remain on a temporary “Global Graduate Talent Visa” for up to 2 years to search for work in the UK, at which point they would switch into Tier 2.

However, these disappointments can distract from the statements made within the MAC report in support of the importance of international students in the UK. For example, the MAC report states that there is no doubt that international students offer positive economic benefits to the economy and that if the Government’s industrial strategy is to be a success “it needs a vibrant higher education sector and it is impossible to imagine that without significant and strong recruitment of international students”.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) encourages its members to appreciate what is ”an extremely thorough and comprehensive report” and one which (save for the two issues of the calculation of net migration statistics and the non-introduction of post-study work visas) “supports and validates many if not all the arguments and evidence which so many of us have put forward in recent months and years”.

The recommendations put forward by the MAC include:

• Widening of the window in which applications for switches from Tier 4 to Tier 2 can be made - so that this switch can take place as soon as a job offer is made, even if this is many months before the proposed start date and for a period following completion of the qualification of up to, perhaps, 2 years;

• those who leave the UK following their studies (having passed a Level 6 or above qualification) should benefit from the same period of up to 2 years in which to apply for a Tier 2 visa, whilst benefiting from the same rules as current in-country Tier 4 to Tier 2 switchers (i.e. exemption from RLMT, the cap on restricted visas and the Immigration Skills Charge);

• the post-study leave period for Master’s students should be extended from 4 to 6 months (though for undergraduates it should remain at 4 months);

• replacing the Doctoral Extension scheme with 12 months leave to remain after PhD completion being incorporated into the original visa duration; and

• the rules of work while studying and dependant rights should remain unchanged.

The report also recommends that a cap on the number of Tier 4 visas which can be issued is not introduced due to the benefits of international students to the UK. Indeed, the report emphasises that not only do international students offer “a clear economic benefit… widely spread around the UK” but also subsidise the education of domestic students, ”through wider availability of courses or improved facilities”’ and also benefit the local areas where they study.

Although the MAC recognises that the sector will be disappointed that the report does not recommend a post-study work scheme, it believes that the recommendations surrounding increased periods of leave following completion of the course for Master’s and PhD students goes some way in addressing this. Its concern is that ”a post study work regime could become a pre-work study regime” as institutions ”market themselves based on post-study work opportunities rather than the quality of the education they offer”.

The MAC maintains that to exclude students from the official net migration figures “would be difficult technically and, if done correctly, would make almost no difference to the net migration figures”. Universities UK has responded that in failing to amend these aspects of policy, ”this adds to the perception that they [international students] are not welcome here” leading to a ”slowdown” in the UK’s popularity as a location for talented international students and staff.

Whilst the MAC’s recommendations are not as drastic in their reform of the current policy as the sector might have liked, the report actively emphasises the benefits that international students bring to the UK and may be the first step towards a simpler and more welcoming visa process for international students hoping to come here in future, though time will tell. Interestingly the MAC comments that it would be helpful if the Government “avoided sending mixed messages about its plans regarding international students” and “it would be better to loosen visa requirements and regulations as much as possible” .The report encourages the Government and the sector to continue to work together to grow the number of international students.

In a busy few days for the MAC, it has today published its final report on EEA migration in the UK and its recommendations for the UK’s post-Brexit work immigration system. We will issue a separate briefing on this report.

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