Student Visas - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Oxford University Student Union (SV56)

Oxford students are seriously concerned that unless substantially revised, the package of proposed changes to the Tier 4 Visa system will harm the University's global academic standing, reduce our ability to attract top graduate students and cause serious disruption and distress to those international students who do attend Oxford. The Government has set itself a hugely ambitious and unprecedented target in reducing net migration to the UK in the lifetime of this Parliament, and is now proposing a raft of changes to the student visa system in order to achieve this target. Whilst the stated ambition of these reforms—to combat abuse of the Tier 4 visa route—are clearly to be applauded, there is a real and imminent danger that the changes as proposed will have a series of deeply negative and unintended consequences on Oxford and its students. We would urge the Home Affairs Select Committee to examine these potential consequences and to propose to the Government an alternative model of change which seeks to build on and strengthen the Highly Trusted Sponsor Status programme as a pathway to serious reform without seriously detrimental effects. Only in this way can our international reputation for educational excellence be maintained, to the immense social and economic benefit of the whole country.


Of paramount concern to Oxford students is the proposal to end the ability for students' dependants to work. Not only is there the serious moral element involved in splitting families or forcing people to exist in this country without a vocation, but it is inevitable that this measure will deter many talented students from coming to study at Oxford and contributing to our academic community and the British economy both during their time of study and afterwards. A sample of testimonies from current students amply demonstrates this prediction. One student wrote to the Student Union to say that:

My wife and I made the decision to move to the UK for the duration of my DPhil given that she would be able to work to support us both while I studied. If the visa process were changed to disallow her from working, we would not have been able to make financial ends meet, and would have accepted an offer from a non-UK institution.

Another stated that had these changes been brought in as they were applying:

It is highly likely I would have chosen a Doctoral post in a different country. This would have been a incredible waste of a scholarship to study at a renowned University, in a country that I love and to which I have strong ancestral ties myself.

Finally, another student explained their situation very simply—"I would have opted for programmes in the USA or in Germany, if my partner were not allowed to work". There can be no doubt, then, that forbidding dependents of international students from working will give other nations, and particularly the United States, a huge competitive advantage in attracting the top academic talent at a postgraduate level. For the relatively small number of dependents who come to Oxford and work this is a price which the Government cannot afford to pay at a time of funding cuts to Higher Education and increasing global competition for graduate students. We would urge at the very least that those institutions which have been accorded Highly Trusted Sponsor Status after a rigorous process of accreditation and inspection should be allowed an exemption from this punitive measure.


The proposals to end the post-study work route have been met with equal alarm. Many international students amass serious levels of debt in order to study at Oxford. The post-study work visa allows them to pay off this debt whilst contributing to the British economy, before returning to their country with a qualification that allows them to become leaders in their chosen field of work. Such a scenario is of enormous benefit to Oxford and the UK, not just in academic and economic terms but in the diplomatic and political capital amassed by teaching and serving as home to the world's future business, social and political leaders. Perhaps even more crucially, the post-study work route allows Oxford University to employ as post-doctoral workers those top students into whom it has invested years of training and resource. The idea that we would send such exceptional individuals back to their country or to other world-class institutions rather than retaining them in our own Universities is a very alarming one given the competition Oxford and other UK Universities now face to stay at the top of their intellectual fields. That such a scenario is unavoidable under the current proposals is again evidenced by individual testimony, with one student claiming that:

I chose the UK as my destination to study (three years ago) because of the flexibility it gave in knowing that I could have an opportunity to do post-study work. By abolishing this and also imposing more and more restrictions, I wouldn't even think about coming to Oxford, even though its such a prestigious institution.

Another said that:

Part of the incentive of coming to the UK was the ability to continue in my field as a professional scientist. It seems rather short-sighted to remove immediately from the country all that expertise that has been invested into an individual through the course of education.

A third explained that:

I feel that the abolition of the post-study work visa is closing a door on the options that I have to remain and work in the UK...I will be looking for jobs all over the world, and one of the biggest considerations I will have when deciding on a job will be how much of a hassle it will be to get permission to work in that country. I believe that the UK is already lagging behind the US and Europe in this regard, and the new visa regulations will only make things worse.

Oxford students then would like to join the chorus of those across the country urging the Government to reconsider the closing of the post-study work route, and, if some restriction were deemed necessary, at least to retain the post-study work route for students from those institutions which are Highly Trusted and can therefore be relied upon to produce graduates of the highest academic ability.


The proposal to restrict students to solely on-campus work during the week would likewise have a deterrent effect on applications from the very kind of energetic, creative students which have contributed to the success of UK universities as training grounds of global leaders and innovators. One student explained how he had supported his doctoral studies by working remotely, via the internet, for a consultancy firm in London, putting the knowledge and skills which he had as a doctoral student to productive use in the British economy. Another explained how he researched and wrote articles on climate change economics for a firm in London while pursuing his Master's at Oxford. Clearly, whether "on-campus employment" is defined geographically or by the identity the employer as a subsidiary of a university, this will prevent a 21st Century student to use 21st Century technology to make a productive contribution to the 21st Century economy of the UK, depriving the UK economy of the skills of internationally competitive students and dissuading internationally competitive students from applying to the UK—which would only benefit the UK's competitor countries which do not so restrict a student's ability to support themselves by work off-campus in complement to their academic studies.

We would therefore encourage the Government not to limit students from Highly Trusted Sponsor universities to solely on-campus work during the week, in order to avoid the unnecessary competitive disadvantage which this would impose upon such world-class universities and the counter-productive prevention of student contribution to the modern, digital UK economy.


The proposal that students would be forced to return home to extend their visa is another which has excited serious concern due to the significant cost, time and effort which this would demand of students in order to comply. It may be that students simply cannot afford flights home (which must, by definition, be far enough afield to be outside the EU) for what may only be a few weeks, and the time and effort it would take might convince them to study elsewhere. One student in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship commented that:

When I arrived at Oxford, I was enrolled in an MSc. course, but I switched to the DPhil track after the first few weeks. My generous scholarship pays for me to be here, but it will not pay for me to fly back across the ocean simply to extend my visa. Put simply, then: to me it seems economically and ecologically inefficient for the British government to demand that students wishing to extend their visas must do so from their home countries.

Another noted that the restriction:

[would] come either at a time when I will be applying for jobs, or writing up my thesis. In either case, nothing could be less convenient than being away from my department, colleagues and supervisor. I fail to see why I should spend hundreds of pounds on a plane ticket in order to get to South Africa, so that I can hand in my application form to a representative of the UK government.

Clearly, although the symbolic nature of asking students to return home to apply for a new course may serve the Government's purpose of reinforcing the temporary nature of study visas, it would be seen by Oxford students as an indication that they are not valued or appreciated by the British Higher Education sector, and would dissuade them from applying for continued study at a UK university, taking with them to one of the UK's competitor countries all the labour, genius and invention which they would apply to their continued academic study.

There is also concern at the timing of applications; if students graduate in the summer months and have to return home, apply for a new visa, awaiting the processing of their application, and obtain their visa before taking up a course in October, there is a concern that any delays would prevent that student from starting their course on time and with other students. Given that Oxford terms are relatively short, any delays are particularly detrimental to students. For Oxford it is also unclear how this would affect students progressing from MPhil to DPhil courses, as this transfer (which is effectively instantaneous on the passing of an oral examination) would not allow time to return home and obtain a new visa. Once again, then, it would seem wise to allow Highly Trusted Sponsor institutions a full exemption from this measure in order to allow Oxford and other top UK Universities to create a pain-free system which would not put off top academic talent from applying and staying on in Britain.


A further proposal which we feel requires significant revision is the idea that international students should be asked to show clear "progression" from one level of study to another. In Oxford, many students who already hold Master's degrees may seek to take up a Master's course in a complementary subject, broadening their area of expertise in order to take up a higher research degree. Many wish to take a more practical Master's course such as an MBA after completing a DPhil. We believe that the restriction of only allowing students to study courses at a higher level than a previous course does not allow for flexibility or for the wide range of routes students at Oxford may take in order to start their careers. Many students do not take a linear route to studying a DPhil or to carrying out postdoctoral research. The concern is that "progressive" moves may not be as easily demonstrable as simply moving from an undergraduate degree to an MA, from an MA to an MPhil, and so on. There is a real danger that a student's individual assessment of a course as useful or essential to their academic development, or to the development of their career, will be unduly restricted by this measure.


Finally, bringing in the proposed additional English language tests would, for Oxford University, singularly fail to improve selectivity and would greatly complicate the admissions system. Oxford's English language requirements are currently set well above level B2 of the CEFR, so any additional language requirements would be entirely superfluous.

Concerns were raised by students that taking CEFR examinations is often very expensive, and that students may need to travel a considerable distance in their home country in order to sit them. Placing this extra financial burden on students from non-English-speaking countries would create an unnecessary barrier in terms of access for students from non-majority English-speaking countries, particularly since they would have already convinced the University of their English language proficiency.

Furthermore, if it were the case that these examinations would have to be completed within a relatively short time frame (for instance, six months), students showed concern that they would have to go through a lengthy and expensive process more than once if complication arose with their applications. There could be no more unfriendly and off-putting symbol of unnecessary bureaucracy than a student travelling many miles at great cost to take an exam which they had already passed in order to come to Oxford. We therefore urge the Government to grant Highly Trusted Sponsors an exemption from this requirement.


Taken as a whole, the Government's proposed package of reforms would have a devastating impact upon Oxford's ability to attract and retain those international students who are crucial to our University's economic and intellectual future. As a high-level student from the Commonwealth put it:

an environment where spouses are denied entry, or forbidden to work, restrictions are placed on students' ability to work to support themselves during study, and there is no recourse to work immediately after study sounds like something I wouldn't bother with. As well-regarded as the UK's universities are, there are far friendlier places to study. This high regard will not last long without the input of international students.

The Home Affairs Select Committee should take such forceful testimony very seriously—unless a drastically different course of action is pursued which would grant considerable exemptions to Highly Trusted Sponsors, it will become common opinion that the UK is not in the market for top international student talent. Such a message would be devastating to the international competitiveness of our graduate courses, resounding to the detriment of all students British, EU and international who would seek to study at a world-class British university, and could put a huge dent in our Universities' abilities to survive the global recession and recent public funding cuts.

February 2011

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