Earlier this year, the Home Secretary announced significant measures to restrict the numbers of international students in the UK, which form a part of the UK Government’s overall strategy of reducing net migration figures. Data published by the Office for National Statistics for the year ending June 2023 shows that approximately 486,000 student visas were granted in that period. This marks a 2 per cent increase on the previous year’s figures but an 86 per cent increase on figures in the year ending September 2019 (prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic).
Under pressure to reduce overall migration figures, the Government has now introduced measures which aim to reduce the number of student visa holders by limiting the UK’s appeal as a destination for international students. This article examines these measures and other key immigration developments in the higher education sector this year.
Restrictions on joining family members
The Home Office will restrict the ability of international postgraduate students whose courses start on or after 1 January 2024 to bring their family members to the UK with them. There are limited exceptions carved out for students completing PhDs or postgraduate research-based programmes, students on government-sponsored programmes, and for dependent children born in the UK. In practice, however, what this means is that the majority of taught Masters students will no longer be eligible to be accompanied by their family members while they are studying in the UK.
Under previous rules, postgraduate students could be joined by qualifying family members (ie partners and any minor children) in the UK. In an announcement earlier this year, the Home Secretary noted that 136,000 visas were granted to student dependants in the year ending December 2022, which represented an increase of 750 per cent from 2019 levels.
It is worth noting that partners and minor children who are excluded from applying as dependants under the Student route will also be ineligible to join as dependants on the post-study work "Graduate route" (ie after the student visa holder completes their UK degree). This makes it more likely that such applicants will forgo the Graduate route and instead seek sponsorship on one of the UK’s sponsored work routes, which under current rules have more generous provisions for family members, after they have completed their studies.
The Government also intends to review the financial requirements that students must meet as part of their application to demonstrate they can look after themselves in the UK without recourse to public funds, although we await further information on this.
Restrictions on switching into work routes
On 17 July 2023, the Home Office introduced changes to restrict the ability of student visa holders in the UK to switch into work visa routes in the UK. The new rules now mean that student visa holders can only switch to a UK work visa once they have completed their studies or where their work starts after their course ends. There are limited exceptions for PhD students who can switch into a work route once they have completed at least 24 months of their studies. Students will also need to meet similar requirements if they wish to switch into a dependant visa of a partner on a work route.
The Government’s underlying logic behind these provisions is to “prevent misuse” of the student routes so that overseas students cannot switch into work visas before they have actually completed their studies. This may be of benefit to student sponsor licence holders as it may bolster their course completion rates, a figure that the UK Home Office uses to measure the compliance of a student sponsor licence holder on an annual basis. However, the statistics suggest that only a small minority of student visa holders have been switching into sponsored work routes prior to the completion of their studies, so it is to be seen whether this policy will have any real impact on overall numbers.
Practically speaking, UK employers will need to consider these changes carefully when recruiting student visa holders. They may need to consider deferring potential work start dates, allowing the student to utilise their limited work rights on their existing student visas, or arrange for the student to apply from overseas rather than switching within the UK.
The Government has significantly increased visa fees in several immigration categories, which will place an additional cost on students, employers, sponsors, and individuals. There have been increases of least 20 per cent to a raft of visa application fees and other settlement, citizenship, and priority services. Fees for sponsors to assign a ‘Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS) has increased from £21 to £25 per student, and overseas student visa application fees have increased by 35 per cent from £363 to £490.
The Immigration Health Surcharge, another fee paid by migrants in the UK to access NHS services, will increase from £624 to £1035 per year of permission requested in the UK, with the lower rate for students and minors increasing from £470 to £776 per year. The implementation date of the Immigration Health Surcharge increase has not been announced but we expect this to come into force in early 2024.
Fee increases may have an impact on the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for overseas students and other migrants, although a recent Home Office review found demand for immigration to be relatively inelastic in relation to fee increases.
Impact of marking boycotts on UK visas
Since July 2021, graduates of British universities can apply to switch into the "Graduate" route, a two-year unsponsored visa (three-year visas in the case of PhD holders), which allows them to live and work in the UK without restriction. To be eligible for the visa, the relevant university must have notified the Home Office that the applicant has successfully completed their course.
As successful course completion was impacted by marking and assessment boycotts at some universities earlier this year, student visa holders were left unable to prove that they were eligible to switch into a Graduate visa. The Home Office introduced discretionary arrangements to mitigate against these disruptions, which allowed visa processing teams to hold visa applications for a limited period pending results.
The Home Secretary has also recently announced a review of the Graduate visa route so we may see further changes to this route in Spring 2024.
Despite introducing measures to reduce numbers in this sector and across other visa routes, the Government ostensibly remains committed to their "International Education Strategy", which, when published in 2019, aimed to increase the numbers of international students studying in the UK to 600,000 per year by 2030. In a different context, these figures may have been welcomed as proof of the UK education sector’s enduring international appeal and the successful realisation of the Government’s policy ambitions. It is not yet clear at this stage how the Government intends to balance these two conflicting commitments and the wider impact this will have on the Education sector.
If you have any questions about these developments, please contact a member of our Immigration Team.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, December 2023