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Higher education leaders have warned that the government's immigration white paper will add new obstacles for EU students and staff, and more financial burdens and red tape for universities.
Responding to the White Paper, The UK’s future skills-based immigration system, university leaders welcomed removal of the cap on skilled migrants and the omission of a specific target for net migration, but warned that a proposed sponsorship requirement could add to cost and red tape.
Jessica Cole, head of policy for the Russell Group, said: "We remain seriously concerned that overall the Government's proposals will place an unrealistic and unsustainable burden on sponsors, including businesses, universities, the NHS, schools and charities.”
Commenting on the sponsorship proposals, she added: “This adds to the already excessive cost and red tape faced by these organisations. The White Paper gives some reassurances that Government will look to reduce the sponsorship burden, but with very little clarity on how this could be achieved. It is vital this issue is resolved as part of the consultation.”
The White Paper draws back from setting the minimum £30,000 salary threshold for intermediate and high level skilled workers that was recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee. Instead, the government will consult with “businesses and employers as to what salary threshold should be set”.
All students coming to the UK under the future system will have to be sponsored by the institution at which they are studying, as is currently the case for non-EU students. European Economic Area (EEA) countries are likely to be classed among those nations with a strong track record of immigration compliance, so EU students will need less documentary evidence when applying for a visa.
The White Paper said the government will consider others ways in which the sponsorship system can be streamlined and made more ‘light-touch’, including the development of a new digital system, and engagement with the sector.
Post-study leave period for undergraduates and full-time postgraduates is to be extended from four to six months and all PhD students will have a “built-in” 12-month post-study leave period at the end of their studies.
It is also intended that EU students coming to the UK for short courses of up to six months and those on exchange visit and Erasmus programmes, or their replacement, will be able to come to the UK on the same basis as other non-visa nationals.
Jessica Cole commented: “The fact that the White Paper does not include the explicit ambition to bring net migration down to tens of thousands sends a more welcoming message to potential migrants, as well as to those who already contribute to our society.
“It is sensible for the Government to focus on attracting the skills our economy needs and to remove the cap on skilled migrants. It remains to be seen, however, if these proposals will enable the UK to continue competing for top European talent, particularly when freedom of movement will remain in place on the Continent.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said the ability to recruit international staff at a broad range of skill levels and students at all levels of study, with minimal barriers, was vital to the continued success of UK universities.
"Removal of the cap on numbers of highly skilled workers is a welcome acknowledgement that EU and non-EU university staff make a major contribution to the success of universities. Their contribution is vital to post-Brexit Britain,” he said.
He also welcomed the post-study work for a period of up to one year for PhD students and 6 months for others but said that unless all graduates were allowed to stay and work for two years, the UK would continue to lag behind global competitors.
Jarvis also warned that thousands of European Economic Area (EEA) nationals working as technicians at UK universities earned below £30,000 and would be negatively affected if this was confirmed as the minimum salary threshold.
He also said that the proposals to require EU students to have a study visa would place an additional burden on students and universities.
Nick Hillman, director of the the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the two factors that will have the biggest impact on EU students numbers – the fee increase and the end to loan entitlement – were not even mentioned in the White Paper.
He added that the legislation would put new obstacles in the way of international students and overseas university staff.
“Ministers have made great play of their commitment to exclude students from any migration limits. But that is a re-announcement of the existing position. It is clear students will stay in the published data and new restrictions are being placed on students from other European countries,” he said.
Dr Greg Walker, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, commented: "We welcome the government's recognition of the importance of welcoming and encouraging international students and the commitment to place no limit on numbers. Overseas students contribute billions of pounds a year to the UK economy, and universities want to work with government to help this part of the sector grow in the years to come. A better offer on post-study work is very welcome, but we hope that this process will allow us all to look again at how student immigration and Tier 4 visas operate more broadly and how we can improve the system, in the best interests of students, universities and the wider economy."
Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland said: “A six month entitlement for international graduates to stay in the UK to find work is a step in the right direction but doesn’t compare with the post-study work entitlements offered by our competitors.
“We’re also concerned about the proposal for EU students to have to acquire a study visa, putting up another barrier for students who wish to study here in Scotland. Added to that, universities will now have added bureaucracy and cost as EU students will be subject to Home Office sponsorship rules along with other international students."
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