Struggling to fulfill its promise to cut immigration after Brexit, the British government announced on Tuesday its intention to drastically restrict family reunification for foreign students.
The UK has already seen record net immigration of half a million people between June 2021 and June 2022 and new figures due this week are expected to confirm the trend, embarrassing for the Conservative executive led by Rishi Sunak. The subject is all the more delicate as the very right-wing Minister of the Interior Suella Braverman is currently weakened by her management of a speeding ticket.
Reduce “significantly the migratory balance”
While prestigious British universities are attracting many foreigners, the new restrictions on student visas “will significantly reduce net migration by limiting the possibility for international students to bring in family members,” the government said in a statement.
These measures, which will come into force in January, concern all students “with the exception of postgraduate researchers”. In addition, foreign students will no longer be able to switch from a student visa to a work visa before completing their studies. The government promises to act against “unscrupulous agents” who use student visas as a migration route.
A “fair balance”
In 2022, around 136,000 visas were issued to dependents of foreign students, up from 16,000 in 2019, according to government figures. “We have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of dependents of students arriving in the country on visas,” noted Suella Braverman, quoted in the press release.
The minister judged that the new measures represented a “fair balance” and would allow “in the medium term” to return the migratory balance to the pre-Covid level.
“They are treated with contempt”
The reactions have been strong from the side of universities, which fear that foreigners who pay exorbitant tuition fees will lose a vital source of income and part of their attractiveness on the world stage.
The Russell Group, which represents the most prestigious establishments such as Oxford or Cambridge, expressed concern about measures that will affect efforts “to diversify international recruitment”. “Those who choose to study in the UK, no matter where they come from, bring enormous value to our society and deserve to live alongside their loved ones during their studies”, criticized for his part Jo Grady, secretary general of the higher education union UCU. “Instead, they are treated with contempt.”
“Stop the Boats”
The issue of immigration control dominated debates during the 2016 campaign that resulted in the UK leaving the European Union. But the Conservative government has since failed to bring down legal and illegal immigration, despite promising to regain border control.
In 2022, more than 45,000 migrants, a record, crossed the English Channel illegally. “Stopping the Boats” is one of Rishi Sunak’s five priorities. The government wants to send asylum seekers who arrived illegally to third countries like Rwanda. But this project, challenged in court, is at a standstill.
At the same time, the United Kingdom has, since Brexit, faced a labor shortage, particularly in agriculture and health, creating regular tensions within the majority. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently admitted that he would have to grant tens of thousands of seasonal agricultural visas, appearing to go against his interior minister. The latter intervened in an ultra-conservative conference to declare that he saw “no good reason why the United Kingdom cannot train its own lorry drivers and fruit pickers to reduce immigration”.
Amid political tensions, Suella Braverman has been under attack since it emerged in the press over the weekend that she had asked officials to help her get preferential treatment after speeding last summer, under the form of a special awareness course. His request was refused but Rishi Sunak said he consulted his ethics adviser Laurie Magnus to decide on any follow-up to be given to what the opposition denounces as a violation of the ministerial code.