London Student

If Britain wants to attract international students, visas must include work

In Australia (and in England), an undergrad BA might net you about 16 hours of contact time a week, leaving a whole 152 hours to do with what you will. That’s a lot of time for all the requisite binge drinking being a student entails, and a lot of time to actually study.

Most students choose to study away from home and even though tuition fees are covered by government loans, there are a whole lot of expenses that need covering – which is where being a waitress or a bartender comes in.

Older students might work two days a week for the Labour Party, or some not-for-profit, others still might get jobs as paralegals – using their jobs to gain skills in any given industry while meeting future colleagues and bosses. Some work more slavishly than others. If you’re not in halls or college it can be tough to make friends in your course, which means that work often provides another social network. Personally, if we’re friends and didn’t become so in high school, we probably met at work.

In the UK (and in Australia), international students pay about double what domestic and EU students do. An MSc at the University of London costs upwards of £15,000 per year, which is more than half of the U.K. average yearly salary (£26,500) before you even buy lunch.

For many, London is the city, and the UK holds a special place in the cultural consciousness for much of the world. If the LSE were in rural Western Australia (proper mining country, not the nice bit with wineries and turtles hatching) I doubt it would have the same diverse student body that it does today.

Students from around the world flock here, contributing £7 billion pounds per year to the UK economy. London has a handful of top-tier universities within throwing distance of each other and (while it would be a good throw) Oxbridge is just down the road. Between SW1 and Inverness, there are more elite education facilities per metre than almost anywhere in the world.

But students come here for a million reasons. For many, London is the city, and the UK holds a special place in the cultural consciousness for much of the world. If the LSE were in rural Western Australia (proper mining country, not the nice bit with wineries and turtles hatching) I doubt it would have the same diverse student body that it does today.

However it’s a hard thing to afford. A year of rent is going to cost at least £6,000, and then there’s food and blankets, an extra pair of shoes, and an emergency winter coat when the full brisk, drizzly truth of the UK winter slaps you out of your complacency. International fees alone limit student intake to the wealthiest of the world (despite a Home Office spokesperson telling me that the UK is “committed to making sure we can attract the brightest and the best [to study in the UK]”), and the sheer prohibitive wall of cost perpetuates this.

There would be one quick way of broadening the international student bodies of UK universities: allowing them a proper working week. Some governments (like the US) offer their students loans to study overseas, covering all or part of the fees depending on your family’s income. Some students get scholarships, some a mixture of both. Many more still are here but for the grace of Mum and Dad.

Now imagine being a student with a partial scholarship, a bit of help from your parents, knowing that you’ll never be able to make it because you can’t afford rent, but likely could if you were able to get a job.

Businesses don’t want people who can only work 20 hours a week (in the case of degree level students), or 10 hours a week for students studying below degree level. If they do employ you, they are likely to underpay you – one former Masters student told me he was making £7.40 an hour working at a pub. It severely limits the type of work available to you.

Carlyn, a student at the London College of Fashion, can only work 10 hours a week. She said that companies, especially hair salons, are less likely to hire you because of hour restrictions. “Working would also help me meet people in my industry”, she said.

With fees being what they are, to say nothing of the hundreds of pounds applicants must pay just for the privilege of applying, surely there are cheaper ways of being an illegal immigrant

The Home Office website says that for Tier 4 visas, the main reason to be here is study, so your work will be limited during term time. This seems incomplete. Firstly, there are no such restrictions on domestic students. One student on my course works full-time at the Ministry of Defence and studies in the evenings – she routinely humiliates me by achieving higher grades than all of us and seeming generally more prepared for class. Some students even have children.

Secondly, your visa is granted on the understanding that you’ll pass your course. If you fail, you must leave the country. Surely, then, it should be up to the student to decide how much they can work without putting their degree and visa at risk.

The government is clearly worried that people will use this as a backdoor to a work visa. But with fees being what they are, to say nothing of the hundreds of pounds applicants must pay just for the privilege of applying, surely there are cheaper ways of being an illegal immigrant. And at the same time there are academic requirements, meaning that anybody coming here as a student must get their degree anyway.

Another potential way to limit the prohibitive aspects of moving to the UK is for students to study part-time. 25% of students in the UK elect to study part-time (although according to a report by Universities UK, this number is falling). At Birkbeck College in London, 39% of undergraduates are part-time – way above the national average – which allows them to work during the days and study in the evenings, helping them battle the rising costs associated with study in the United Kingdom.

International students aren’t allowed to study part-time; their visas are given out on the proviso that they study full-time. If an international student were to make less than the average yearly full-time wage, say £20,000/year, they could more easily afford an MA in London – if, unlike Carlyn and many others, their parents are not able to help them as much as they might like.

But this is Planet Trump now. It would take a courageous politician to introduce a policy which was attractive to foreigners, made it easier for them to come here, and less stressful to live and study. However, good policy is as timeless as bad policy, and the UK needs to do all it can to ensure that it is able to attract talent from around the world.

According to that Universities UK report in 2015, the number of students coming from India has fallen by 49% since its peak in 2009-10. Tripti Maheshwari, Co-Founder of Student Circus, a start-up which helps international students find jobs post-study, suggests that this is because of the strict visa requirements. “[Numbers of students from India dropped] in 2012, when the work visa rules became strict and the post study visa was discontinued”.

It is clear that government policy can have an immediate effect on the preferences of international students and the government should do more than simply pay lip service to making sure the UK is attractive.

International students want to come here, and allowing them a proper working week and access to part-time study options would allow a more diverse range of students, from backgrounds beyond the international rich, to do so.

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Tom Melville

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