Omar Oualili, like many international students, went to the United Kingdom for a quality education at a relatively low cost. “My parents could not afford to send me to study in the U.S. — it’s…
Omar Oualili, like many international students, went to the United Kingdom for a quality education at a relatively low cost.
“My parents could not afford to send me to study in the U.S. — it’s too far and too expensive. What I paid in the U.K. during my whole studies — a bachelor’s and master’s in four years — would have only been the same amount for just one year in the U.S.,” says Oualili, 24, who moved to London from Casablanca, Morocco.
But securing work sponsorship after graduation can be tricky: In 2012, the U.K. changed its time limit for recent international student graduates to obtain a work visa from two years to four months.
Oualili completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting and finance at the University of West London in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The Moroccan student, who is now pursing an additional postgraduate degree in the political economy of the Middle East at King’s College London, says securing employment after his first master’s degree was stressful.
“I used to work part time for an ad tech company called Empello during my studies. After graduation, my student visa was about to expire, and they offered me a full-time job. It was really about luck because it is very hard to secure a work sponsorship in the U.K.,” Oualili says.
Nearly 70 percent of the more than 450,000 international students who studied in the U.K. in 2016-2017 were from non-European Union countries, according to data from the UK Council for International Student Affairs. While the U.K. has experienced modest growth in international student enrollment in recent years, U.K. universities say the country’s immigration policies for international students are too restrictive.
New enrollments of international students in higher education institutions in the U.K. grew 1.7 percent between 2015-16 and 2016-17, with enrollments in an undergraduate or “first degree” program growing 2.4 percent, which, though modest, represents a turnaround after two years of decline in new international students, Michael Peak, senior education advisor at the British Council, wrote in an email.
Randy LeGrant, executive director GeoVisions, a U.S.-based organization that offers student volunteer opportunities abroad, says the U.K.’s slight growth in international student enrollment between 2015 and 2017 does not reflect its current or future trajectory; these are “probably students who timed their graduating before Brexit,” he says.
Britain’s impending exit from the European Union, known as Brexit, is currently slated for March 2019.
The U.K. scrapped its post-study visa program in 2012, several years prior the Brexit referendum. The U.K.’s Home Office, the department that handles visas and immigration, has also been examining ways to reduce the country’s net migration.
Currently, “if a student has been accepted for a job whilst studying, the employer can sponsor the student leading to a Tier 2 visa, which lasts up to five years and 14 days or the length of your position,” says Stephen Spriggs, managing director of William Clarence Education, a London-based education consultancy firm. “Without work already secured, it can be difficult to remain in the U.K. following the expiration of a student visa.”
Spriggs says master’s and Ph.D. students may find it easier. For example, some Ph.D. students may be able to take advantage of a special visa extension program that allows them to stay in the country for an additional 12 months.
Critics of the U.K.’s lack of a postgraduate visa scheme for undergraduates say it could put the country at odds for maintaining its position as a popular destination among non-EU international students.
While the U.K. is currently the second-most-popular destination for international students, its market share has declined slightly in recent years, according to a U.K. government report released in September, ” Impact of International Students in the UK.” The report says that while the number of Chinese students in the U.K. has remained stable at more than 65,000, the number of Indian students, for instance, has dropped.
Higher education experts say the U.K. and the U.S. are losing some of their competitive edge as international students are being lured to Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which heavily promote the advantages of study in their countries.
As of 2016, the U.S. allows STEM graduates who are on F-1 student visas up to three years of employment through its Optional Practical Training program. Meanwhile, Canada offers up to a three-year postgraduate work visa; similarly, New Zealand will offer up to three years for its post-study open work visa, effective Nov. 28.
Universities UK, a member organization that represents the country’s higher education institutions, is lobbying for an unrestricted post-study visa to allow graduates to seek jobs without a sponsor. The organization is also calling for the U.K. government to lower the income threshold for a Tier 2 work visa from £20,800 ($26,983) to £19,500 ($25,297) for an entrant salary.
“The ability to work in a skilled job for a limited period after graduation is, for many prospective international students, an important part of the overall package when deciding where to study. We are proposing a new graduate visa that would make the UK more attractive to students,” said Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, in a September press statement.
“It would send a more welcoming message to international students and signal that the UK is open to talented individuals from around the world. As Brexit discussions continue, the UK needs an ambitious immigration policy that helps boost our regional and global competitiveness.”