Chinese students face increasing barriers in UK

Updated: 2015-07-31 08:28

By He Wei(China Daily Europe)

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Country becoming unattractive for those outside the EU as opportunities begin to shrink

Tougher visa policies, skyrocketing tuition fees and health charges are beginning to deter international students from studying in the United Kingdom.

And the gloomy job market - especially for fresh graduates - adds to concerns about their decision to study in a country that is increasingly viewing overseas students as "cash cows".

The non-European Union students I spoke to here in London unanimously pointed to one name as the culprit for the tightened rules: Theresa May.

In a bid to attract to her country the "brightest and best" talents, the 59-year-old home secretary has put forward a string of reforms on student visa validation and issuance.

Among other proposals, May's manifesto pledge for last May's general election requires Tier 4 visa holders (for international university students) to leave the UK upon graduation, meaning they would need to apply for a new visa from overseas if they want to return to work in the country.

Latest measures, according to the BBC News, include the need to prove higher financial savings on arrival for student visa applicants, with their dependents barred from taking low-skilled jobs.

Chinese students face increasing barriers in UK

Although the proposals have not yet become law, they are already a worry to international students. Gone are the days when graduates were granted a post-study work visa for up to two years, which meant they could accept internships that were likely to translate into full-time job offers. That scheme was scrapped in 2012, and currently international students are able to stay up to four months after the completion of their courses.

The new reality is especially harsh on one-year master's students. Companies' hiring procedures can take as long as a year, which means they would have to start job hunting at the beginning of their studies. It's already difficult for graduates in the UK to find full-time employment. Instituting a four-month time limit would make it a seemingly impossible feat.

Data from the UK Council for International Student Affairs showed only 5,639 students were granted a Tier 2 work visa to stay in the UK after graduation in 2013-2014. In stark contrast, the net inflow of international students during that period amounted to 310,190.

The UK may be one of the largest beneficiaries of drawing international students into its higher education system. Non-UK/EU students constituted almost one-fifth of all university enrolment in 2014, according to the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency.

More importantly, they are charged up to four times more for tuition fees than locals. The Higher Education Funding Council for England estimates that English universities made 3.2 billion pounds ($5 billion; 4.5 billion euros) from non-EU student fees in 2013-14. That constituted 12.9 percent of their 25.6 billion pounds of income in that year. For instance, the Media and Communications master's program I attend at the London School of Economics charges overseas students 18,600 pounds, while local students only pay around one-third of that.

Unlike the United States, the UK lacks the tradition of large-scale university/department-funded financial aid programs. Such a downside may push prospective candidates away from British universities and toward their counterparts around the world, a marketing specialist at the British Council told me.

Being charged higher fees indicates that students are stereotyped as wealthy. But that doesn't translate into better employment prospects. If anything, it makes them worse, because they have to narrow their search down to companies with a Tier 2 visa sponsor license.

Even for qualified companies, I don't see any motivation, in most cases, for employers to go through all the financial burdens and administrative procedures, only to hire an overseas student over a UK student - provided they are of similar caliber.

On top of high tuition fees, students may end up weighing up the quality of UK education against other tangible and intangible costs of coming here, such as being charged fees for use of state-funded National Health Service facilities. That was free to student visa holders until the policy was changed in early 2015.

Such apathy toward foreigners also extends to tourist visa application. Prices for translating bank statements at the UK visa service center in Shanghai, compulsory for tourism visa application, have jumped from 75 yuan ($12; 11 euros) per copy to 75 yuan for each page in the past eight months. Even though London attracted the largest number of international tourists last year, there is a risk of creating the negative perception that foreigners are not welcome in the UK.

By comparison, the US is making big progress in luring young talent. The Obama administration has expanded the Optional Practical Training program to include 400 fields of study, an initiative allowing graduates to work in the US without a work visa for up to 29 months, and it is considering extending work authorization. Washington is also making welcoming gestures toward tourists. Just last month I successfully obtained a 10-year multiple entry tourist visa without even booking a flight ticket.

Other students are eyeing opportunities in China. Thanks to globalization, the presence of Fortune 500 enterprises in China makes it an equally superb experience to work in Shanghai as in London. The Chinese government has been promoting a mass entrepreneurship program to bolster start-up businesses through tax rebates and financial support. Young entrepreneurs in China are now rushing to launch their dreams amid the global economic slowdown.

I hate to say this, but London wouldn't have been my first choice to study if I hadn't secured a UK government scholarship, which is extremely competitive and given to people with work experience. Truly grateful as I am, I regret to tell my sponsor that it will be difficult to strengthen the UK's attraction, (and I assume by offering scholarships they are serious about attracting talent) if their stricter immigration policies shut the door.

The author, who used to work for China Daily as a journalist, is a graduate student of media and communications at the London School of Economics. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily European Weekly 07/31/2015 page11)