Immigration curbs on families of foreign students

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What are the figures?

The ONS estimated that net migration was over 500,000 between June 2021 to June 2022. This rise can relate to temporary factors, such as the UK’s Ukraine and Hong Kong visa schemes designed to support specific groups in coming to the UK. However, last year almost half a million student visas were issued and the number of dependants of overseas students had increased by 750% since 2019. There were 135,788 visas granted to dependents last year, a rise from 54,486 in 2021, and more than seven times the 19,139 granted in 2020.

According to HESA, an education data group, there were 679,970 international students in the UK in 2021/2022.

Of these:

  • 307,470 were undergraduates, who already could not bring family members to the UK during their course; and
  • 372,500 were postgraduates, with 46,350 on research courses with the vast majority of them completing PhDs, along with a small number of research-based master’s degrees.

Students coming to the UK with a visa who want to bring family with them need to provide documents proving their relationship to their dependent family member, who must pay £490 for their own visa. Dependents are also required to pay the immigration health surcharge -which is an annual contribution between £470 and £624 towards NHS services [1].

These figures have increased since study visa requirements for European Economic Area (EEA) students were introduced after Brexit. Applications have also risen since rules were changed in 2019 to allow foreign students to stay in the UK for two years after graduating to look for jobs. This year, legal migration has hit a record high of 700,000, which potentially could continue to grow with more overseas students taking interest in university courses in the UK.

What is the change?

The new government restrictions being introduced are aimed at cutting net migration by restricting the ability for international students to bring family members on all but post-graduate research routes. The Home Office has dubbed this as a measure to ban people from using a student visa as a backdoor route to work in the UK. Home Secretary Suella Braverman unveiled a package of new restrictions on foreign students aimed at reducing net migration to ‘sustainable levels’.

Under her plans:

  • Foreign students will be banned from bringing dependants to Britain with them unless they are on postgraduate research programmes
  • Foreign students will no longer be able to switch out of the student route into work routes for staying in the UK before their studies have been completed and
  • Efforts will be made to clamp down on ‘unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications to sell immigration not education’ [2].

To prevent misuse of the visa system, overseas students will be stopped from switching from the student visa route into work routes until their studies have been completed [3]. As quoted by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, she states that “it is time for us to tighten up this route to ensure we can cut migration numbers and meet the government’s pledge to the British people to cut net migration”.

What does the change mean?

This change is likely to be met with criticism and it is very likely to change opinions from overseas students and dissuade them from coming to the UK.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents university staff, has called the changes a vindictive move which has raised deep concerns within the sector. They believe that those accompanying overseas students to the UK bring huge value to our society and deserve the right to live alongside their loved ones whilst they study [4]. This opinion was also supported by Adam Habib, who is the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. He criticised the announcement and described it as a terrible decision, listing three reasons for three reasons:

  • First a financial challenge
  • Second it raises issues of coherence in government and
  • Third a human rights question.

What does this mean for employers?

What does this mean for employers?

Dependants have largely unrestricted access to jobs in the UK. Reducing the number of dependants will reduce the number of overseas nationals who can work in the UK, consequently reducing the pool of available talent to UK employers. This move may compel UK employers to look more closely at the local labour market. However, the UK’s recruitment market is still reeling from the effects of Brexit and this is likely to be another setback for UK employers.

Whether changes such as these will remain in place under any future labour government remains to be seen. UK immigration policy is a constantly moving feast. Within the last week, the Home Office did a U-turn on the requirement on sponsor licence holders to report hybrid working arrangements, weeks after the requirement was first brought into place. For now, we can expect these changes to take effect from January 2024.

If you would like to discuss these changes or require bespoke immigration advice, get in touch with our team of expert immigration lawyers.