International students are the ‘ideal migrant’. Even that can’t save them from the UK’s cruelty

A graduation ceremony at Birmingham University.
A graduation ceremony at Birmingham University. Photograph: Andrew Fox/Alamy

OpinionInternational students

Nesrine Malik

Nesrine Malik

Our universities desperately need their money, yet it almost seems the government is trying to put them off comingSun 28 May 2023 14.08 BST

Given how much the subject of immigration dominates British political life, it is remarkable how little people know about what it actually takes to come to this country. Immigrants are spoken of as if they simply purchase a ticket and stroll in, against the wishes and efforts of the government. Perhaps there should be some mandatory course that everyone has to pass – a sort of Life in the UK test in reverse – in which citizens learn what it’s really like. For now, let me reassure you: the UK is very much in control of its borders.

As a veteran of visa applications, I can tell you that the average UK visa process is as probing, extensive and invasive as it gets. But this doesn’t stop the Home Office from regularly introducing a new requirement and presenting it to the public as the supposed closing of a loophole, bringing us closer to whatever it is that counts as an acceptable level of net migration. Last week, it was time for international students to feel the heat.

From next year, with a few exceptions, students coming from overseas will be barred from bringing their dependants with them when they come to study in the UK. Last year, almost 500,000 visas were issued to international students – a category that now includes both EU and non-EU, though the vast majority are the latter – to study in the UK. Along with them came just over 135,000 immediate family members – a figure that the government sees as a nice, meaty number to hack at. What they don’t see are women with small children, families without child-supporting networks back home, and students who – reasonably – would not like to be separated from their partners for a long time. It is a mark of the government’s inability to be honest about the country’s need for immigrants that it is scrambling around for some numbers to cut, and in so doing, targeting a cohort of people that brings in huge amounts of revenue, pay into the NHS, and prove in advance that they will not be a “burden” on the state.

Suella Braverman walking next to a car in Downing Street

But we don’t hear about that, do we? Or about how high the hurdles for entry and settlement already are. Before even being allowed into the UK, international students must demonstrate that they have a place at an accredited British academic institution and have enough funds to cover their course, plus an additional sum to cover living expenses. Dependants have to be able to prove that they have the funds to sustain themselves – £845 a month for up to nine months for courses in London or £680 a month for courses outside London.

All applicants, students and their dependants pay an NHS surcharge; a master’s student with one partner and one child needs to pay £1,410 in advance of setting foot in the UK. They will also continue paying this surcharge every year if they find work, and so will effectively be taxed twice to use the health service. Dependants are defined as partners and any children under 18. Not, as one talking head from Conservative Home said on the BBC last week, “their grandmas”.

Home secretary Suella Braverman leaving 10 Downing Street last week.
Home secretary Suella Braverman leaving 10 Downing Street last week. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

That sort of poorly informed discourse has helped turn what is a very good news story for the country – that the UK is becoming a thriving global hub of revenue-generating international students – into a bad one about unacceptably high migration numbers. The reality is that international students, particularly non-EU ones, are playing a massive role in financing the country’s higher education system while being a net contributor to the economy. Research from 2021 shows that just 10 non-EU students studying in the UK will generate £1m of economic impact during their studies in terms of fees, consumer spending and job creation – and that’s after their use of public services has been accounted for.

Non-EU student fees made up 17% of UK universities’ income in 2020-21 – in effect, crosssubsidising the education of domestic students. The fees they pay are astonishingly high, averaging some £22,000 a year. So high, in fact, and scandalously divorced from the actual cost of delivery are these fees, that the director of Soas University of London recently said that such students are being exploited in a “morally problematic” higher education system that has become reliant on overseas students. That system, he said, would “collapse” if just China and India were to “close the taps”.

Well, Suella Braverman is here to help: introducing a policy that will punish and turn away what is, by government standards, the ideal migrant – someone who only puts into the system, meets strict standards of entry and residence, and has the good sense to clear off afterwards. It’s tempting to ascribe this poor judgment to Braverman herself, but let’s not forget that the home secretary is simply doing what British politicians have done for years, particularly since David Cameron called for net migration to be reduced to “tens of thousands” and the introduction of the hostile environment: making the lives of foreigners as miserable, expensive and lonely as possible. All to “get the numbers down”. Labour, for their part, have said they won’t oppose the measure.

The tragedy is that so much of what we were told Brexit was about – pivoting away from Europe towards the Commonwealth and the rest of the world; investing in our “world-beating” homegrown industries – is personified in the international student. They have a cultural affinity with the UK, recognise the prestige of degrees from British universities and the value of being here to their careers and global relevance. But all the government can see in them is a useful number to cull – economic units to be stripped of relationships, choice and humanity.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist



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