Top Immigration Adviser Backs Student Visa Curbs

Top Immigration Adviser Backs Student Visa Curbs
A graduation ceremony at the University of Suffolk's campus in Ipswich, England, in October 2015. (PA)
Alexander Zhang

A top government adviser has expressed support for plans to scale back the right of foreign students to stay in the UK after graduation.

Professor Brian Bell, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), told The Sunday Telegraph that the independent body thought it “unnecessary” for foreign students to be permitted to work in Britain for two years after completing their master’s degree.

A graduate visa allows master’s students to bring spouses and children to the country with them. Family members are permitted to stay in the country for 24 months after the student’s course is over.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), a significant factor behind the rise in net migration numbers in recent years has been an increase in foreign students and their dependents arriving.

ONS data show that people arriving on study visas accounted for the largest proportion (39 percent) of long-term immigration of non-EU nationals in the year to June 2022; at 277,000 people.

That was up from 143,000 in the previous 12 months.

Bell, a professor of economics at King’s College London, told the newspaper that the graduate visa had allowed foreign students “pretty much unrestricted rights to work” for two years after studying for a one-year master’s degree.

He said the MAC had found students who stayed after graduating were often in low-skilled and low-earning jobs.

“An offer to do anything you want for two years seems unnecessary to us, so I’ve never been massively in favour of the graduate route,” he told the newspaper.

Legal Migration ‘Too High’

According to media reports, the ONS figures to be published later this week are expected to show net migration reached at least 700,000 in the 12 months up to December 2022.

That will exceed the record of 500,000 set in the year to June 2022 and is substantially higher than the 226,000 level that stood when the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised that “overall numbers will come down” following the introduction of post-Brexit border controls.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been pushing for curbs on legal migration.

In a speech to the National Conservatism conference last week, she said Britain “must not lose sight of the importance of controlling legal migration,” as well as clamping down on unlawful entries.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. (Issei Kato/Pool/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. (Issei Kato/Pool/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who sees curbing illegal immigration as one of his top priorities, promised on Sunday his government will also take action to cut legal migration.

Sunak, speaking at a press conference in Hiroshima after attending the G-7 leaders’ meeting, said he has been “considering a range of options to bring the numbers down,” with an announcement to be made “shortly.”

He added, “Let me be unequivocal that future numbers of legal migration are too high and I’m committed, and the government is committed, to bringing those numbers down.”

Student Recruitment

Talking to Sky News on Sunday, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said the biggest increase in migration numbers has been “the number of people coming to study here.”

“Our universities are very keen to have people coming from around the world. We also see it as a great way to potentially attract talent,” she said, adding, “It is critical that we try and make sure people have access to that excellence.”

But Bell said incomes for the higher education sector should not be the only consideration.

In his Sunday Telegraph interview, Bell said fewer overseas students would mean a reduction in GDP, but a large number of dependents could increase the burden on taxpayers through school and other costs.

A Home Office spokesperson, asked about Bell’s comments, said: “The public rightly expects us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing overall net migration, while ensuring we have the skills our economy and public services needs.

“We keep all our immigration policies under constant review to continue to strike a balance between welcoming people who contribute to the UK’s academic institutions and reducing overall net migration over time.”

PA Media contributed to this report.