In May 2023, the UK government announced a new policy where international students will no longer be able to bring their dependants – family, partners, and children – with them into the country for the duration of their studies. Only students enrolled in postgraduate courses designated as research programs, such as PhD students or research-led masters courses, will be exempt. This new policy will take effect by January 2024 to give aspiring international students time to prepare and plan ahead.
This decision was made in response to the massive increase in the UK’s recent figures for net migration, which is the difference between the number of people moving into and out of the UK within the same timeframe. According to ICEF Monitor, “Immigration is at an all-time high in the UK …. In the period June 2021–June 2022, net migration exceeded 500,000 – more than double the number in 2019, and new data to be released this week is expected to show that the 2022 total has risen by at least 200,000.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman acknowledged that “The UK is a top destination for the brightest students to learn at some of the world’s best universities” while also explaining that “[t]he immigration statistics …. highlighted an unexpected rise in the number of dependants coming to the UK alongside international students. About 136,000 visas were granted to dependants of sponsored students in the year ending December 2022, a more than eightfold increase from 16,000 in 2019.”
Positive news amidst these possible changes is that the Graduate Route will remain undisrupted and continue to carry on as intended. The Graduate Route is a provision which allows international students who have successfully completed their studies to stay in the UK for two years (three years for doctoral students) to seek job opportunities. Despite swirling doubts regarding the new policy on international students’ dependants, the duration of their stay post-studies will not be affected.
According to BBC News, The Department for Education “clearly had an input on the issue of student visas, and it took repeated efforts by the Home Office to get an agreement on the new policy.” But while Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has mentioned that “[a]ttracting the top students from around the world …. [is] essential for [the] economy and building vital global relationships”, she adds that “the number of [dependants] has risen significantly. It is right we are taking action to reduce this number while maintaining commitment to our International Education Strategy[.]”
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, told The Guardian that the proposals were “a vindictive move” and “deeply shameful”, saying that “[t]hose who choose to study in the UK …. bring huge value to our society and deserve the right to live alongside their loved ones. …. Deep concern is already being felt across the sector as to how damaging the package of measures could be to the pipeline of international talent coming to the UK[.]”
Rotimi, a Nigerian student doing a masters degree in mechanical engineering, told BBC News that international students of course want to pursue their studies first and foremost, but they also want their families to be part of that experience. He says that without a way for overseas students to bring their families, “most people won’t even consider leaving” – or might opt to study elsewhere instead. Reportedly, Nigeria had the highest number of dependants of student visa holders in 2022, followed by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
A very similar sentiment was shared by political scientist and director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory Madeleine Sumption. She said, “[t]he impacts of restricting family members are likely to be relatively small for the UK as a whole, but will not be evenly distributed. The main impact arguably falls on students themselves: some may choose to be separated from their family during their studies, while others will decide not to come to the UK. As a result, the UK is likely become somewhat less attractive to master’s students.”
On the other hand, Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International (an umbrella group supporting 140 universities across the UK) urges the government to “work with the sector to limit and monitor the impact on particular groups of students – and on universities, which are already under serious financial pressures” adding that the changes were “likely to have a disproportionate impact on women and students from certain countries”.
In a polling commissioned from Public First by Universities UK showed that “[c]ontrary to reported potential changes to immigration policy, the public do not place legal migration as a high priority challenge for the government, and were far more concerned with issues such as the cost of living, NHS pressures and ambulance wait times.” Furthermore, the public also strongly supported the contribution of international students to the UK. The majority of 62% recognised that international students gave more to the economy than they took out, and 43% thought that British diplomacy benefits from hosting international students who leave with positive impressions of the UK after studying here. Findings from poll data was reiterated by UUK chief executive Vivienne Stern MBE as she said that “public perceptions of immigration, and of international students in particular, are not what the government may believe. The public understands the enormous contribution that international students make to our economy, institutions and research outputs, as well as enormously benefiting the UK’s international reputation.”
In her statement, Secretary Braverman said that they are committed to attracting the brightest and the best to the UK, and that their intention is “to work with universities over the course of the next year to design an alternative approach that ensures that the best and the brightest students can bring dependants to our world-leading universities, while continuing to reduce net migration. We will bring in this system as soon as possible, after thorough consultation with the sector and key stakeholders.”
As the new policy is just being unfolded, and as various voices continue to make themselves heard, it seems very plausible for more adjustments to be made to the policy. For example, one thing worth noting is the classification of international students as immigrants. As per the UUK’s polling, it’s interesting to note that only 32% believed that international students should be categorized as immigrants in official figures. This idea seems to resonate with ONS as well, as they have begun exploring ways to “isolat[e] estimates of international students from other types of migrants” to enhance statistics and potentially improve services and policies, such as this.
For now, we should tune in to various ongoing conversations and observe developments within the coming months to see how the UK government will eventually address the clamor from numerous individuals and groups who seek to protect the integrity of the experience of pursuing international studies in the UK. The fitting course of action for a situation which seems to still have many balls up in the air is to continue to equip students with correct information they should know when deciding to study abroad.