To ensure economic growth, the United Kingdom government is now considering increasing the number of hours that international students can work during their studies. Given the worker shortage in the UK, exacerbated by Brexit and post-pandemic economic inactivity, ministers are debating whether to increase the limit to 30 hours or to scrap it completely. One source told The Times that ministers were looking at “what more we can do to remove barriers and encourage students to work” as part of a range of ideas being considered to tackle rising job vacancies.
This announcement comes at the same time as the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) new report on postgraduate demand in the UK. According to their first release of figures on student data for 2021-2022, the number of international students in the UK increased by +12% overall, reaching nearly 680,000. The new total of 679,970 compares with 605,130 from 2020-2021. This growth was driven by soaring demand from cost-conscious international students from India, Nigeria and many other countries outside Europe, as most full-time UK masters programmes take half the time to complete when compared to similar postgraduate programmes in several other study destinations.
Being able to work while studying is now becoming a top priority for international students and increasing or removing the work-hour limits will help make the UK more attractive as a foreign study destination. However, in light of these developments, a number of representatives from the UK education sector are warning against the disadvantages of going through with this decision.
Chief executive of the Russell Group, Tim Bradshaw, was quick to point out the “short-sightedness” on the government’s part; “Encouraging international students to work in restaurants while they study, but forcing them to go home again as soon as they’ve graduated with degrees our economy so badly needs is the very definition of short-sightedness,” he said in a statement.
Moreover, Director of Universities UK International, Jamie Arrowsmith, stated that while it is “good to see” the UK government recognises the skills and expertise international students have to help the UK economy, they are still concerned with the proposal to allow international students to work longer hours alongside their studies as could “severely impact the wellbeing and learning experience of students if not properly thought through.”
“Where similar caps have been lifted in other countries, significant concerns have been raised by student groups and universities,” said Arrowsmith. “If the government really wants to ensure that the UK’s almost 680,000 international students can make the best possible contribution to our economy, they would be better advised to maintain a competitive post-study work offer and immediately recommit to the Graduate route – and to put an end to recent speculation that it might be limited or removed entirely.”
In January of 2022, Australia’s Morrison government announced that they would be scrapping the limit on the number of hours foreign students could work in the country, saying it would both fill “critical workforce shortages” while attracting more international students. Not long after, however, they announced later that the cap would be reinstated from July 2023, as it sought to find the “right balance between work and study”. Alongside Canada, whose government also extended work rights from November 2022 to address labour shortages, the Australian government welcomed the “choice and flexibility” extended work hours offer students but raised concerns about its potential to distract students from their studies. Some have also linked the policy to a rise in “non-genuine” student applications.
Instead of lifting foreign students’ work hour caps, Arrowsmith recommends allowing graduates to stay and work in the UK for two to three years for PhD students. This would offer them the “opportunity to apply their skills and learning”, he continued, thus making it “a better way of helping to address the country’s longer-term skills needs.”