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At a Westminster Higher Education Forum in February this year, the Head of Student Migration Policy confirmed that the Home Office has no intention of placing any cap on international student numbers, and that international students are welcome in the UK. However, it remains government policy that student immigration numbers are included in the net migration figure, which it has committed to reduce. The latter position can give rise to the perception that the UK government wishes to reduce international student numbers, and this perception does not make the job of UK higher education institutions easy when persuading international students to study in the UK. Add in the uncertainty of Brexit, and the complexities of the Tier 4 visa system, and it is no wonder that many international students who might otherwise have applied to UK universities are attracted instead by the increasing number of mainland European universities delivering their courses in English.
There is also ongoing concern across the higher education sector about the lack of post-study work visas. The immigration White Paper proposes a six month post-study leave period for bachelors and masters graduates, with 12 months for PhDs, but this is for most effectively only a 2 month extension to the current 4 month ‘wrap up period’. With Canada and Australia, amongst others, offering post-study work visas of up to 3 and 4 years respectively, the UK may struggle to compete. In the White Paper, the Home Office proposes offering ‘lower skilled’ migrants from ‘low risk countries’ 12 months temporary unrestricted leave, but there is some uncertainty around the operation of this, for example how easy it will be to switch in-country to that route. Although the White Paper is generally seen as a step in the right direction, for all of the above reasons higher education institutions are encouraged to provide the Home Office with their views on the White Paper, which the Home Office has promised is a starting point for discussions.
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