Deporting graduates sends the clear message that the UK is only interested in international students as cash cows

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Annina Claesson
Writer

After this April, non-EU citizens will be required to earn no less than £35,000 a year in order to remain in the country. Home Secretary Theresa May’s initiative will come into force, demanding that every non-EU citizen who has worked in the UK for five years earn above the pay threshold or face deportation. This is the first time that the UK has imposed economic conditions for the right to settle. Normally, settlement is granted on the basis of the length of time an individual has stayed in the country, as well as kinship ties.

This new policy is a crass reminder of the Home Office’s priorities – cutting down on immigration, as well the idea that a person’s worth is decided by their salary. Theresa May aims to cut down the flow of skilled non-EU migrants by 20% each year, only allowing, in her words, ‘the best and brightest’ to remain permanently. The simple fact that ‘the best and brightest’ are not necessarily always raking in the highest salaries seems to elude her.

The new pay threshold will cause tens of thousands of skilled migrants in fields with lower pay to either be deported or lose their chance of the right to settle in the UK. Teachers, charity and IT workers, artists, and nurses are only a few of the occupations that will be heavily affected. Several former cabinet ministers have spoken out against the new rule, and a petition calling on the government to scrap the pay threshold entirely soared to 50,000 signatures in a matter of days.

This is hardly surprising, especially considering that the effects of the pay threshold will not only be felt in the NHS or in tech start-ups, but also on UK university campuses, including Glasgow’s. Our non-EU international students are once again seeing their lives made more difficult by immigration laws. Scientists, lecturers and PhDs are exempt from the pay threshold rule, but it is not difficult to see how this is just another nail in the coffin for the picture of the UK as a welcoming country for international students that so often adorn the nation’s prospectuses. Ever since 2010, international students have seen their reasons to smile for polished PR photos get cut down, one by one.

In 2012, the post-study work visa was scrapped, which previously had allowed for students to work in the UK for two years after graduation; now, students must find work within four months after graduation, or face deportation. Not just any job will do – in order to be eligible for a Tier 2 visa, you must have been offered a job at a particular skill level with an employer that is licensed to sponsor Tier 2 visas, which must pay above a certain sum depending on the job. You are also required to have a minimum amount of savings. The competition for graduate jobs is of course no less harsh for international students, making the four month ticking clock a rather unrealistic time frame. If Ms May had her way, they wouldn’t even get as little as four months, instead being forced to return home immediately after graduation. Tory leadership blocked this plan, calling it ‘mean-spirited’. However, international students at further education colleges do have to comply by this rule, being expelled as soon as they get their diploma in hand. The £35,000 pay threshold is a significant new headache – even if you have managed to find a job meeting all the requirements, you may still be deported after five years if you’re not earning enough.

Student life is already fraught with anxiety about the future, but this is increased significantly for non-EU students, beginning even before arrival in the UK. The already labyrinthine student visa application process is crawling with hidden extra charges. Non-EU students must now also pay a mandatory ‘health surcharge’ of £150 per year in order to use the NHS. EU students have so far been protected against some of these hurdles, but right now, they too have reasons to be worried – the outcome of the EU referendum will determine if they will continue to enjoy a protected position as students in the UK or if they will end up having to deal with similar visa regulations.

These policies speak of a profound ungratefulness towards all the good that international students do to our universities and our economy. From a purely financial perspective, international students’ money is one of the biggest wheels making our universities go round. Non-EU students pay full tuition fees at significantly higher levels than home and EU students (at Glasgow, that would be between £15,250 and £39,000 per year for undergraduates, depending on the course) and many universities count them as one of their most significant sources of income. This is certainly one of the reasons why the University of Glasgow is pushing so hard for its internationalisation programme. However, many academics and students would agree that the benefits that international students bring to the academic environment at UK universities go beyond the financial. The diverse pool of differing perspectives and backgrounds that define many UK campuses enrich everyone’s learning experience. It also allows student to establish global social networks on a scale that is difficult to replicate in other environments.

Deporting students after graduation sends the clear message that the UK is mostly interested in international students as cash cows, and not as individuals that could contribute significantly to our universities, the economy, and Britain’s cultural landscape. Theresa May and the Home Office will likely continue in their quest to make their lives as difficult as possible. It is baffling to see the enthusiasm with which they drive home policies that are ultimately wasteful of great talent. The UK’s many world class universities will struggle to cling to that accolade in a political environment determined to shut out the world.