By Carmen Kong

LONDON—Britain’s Immigration Minister Damian Green and Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed plans to curb non-European Union students to enter Britain for below-degree level courses and tighten limits on post-graduation job-seeking visas. Ministers were told to cut down the number of non-EU migrant workers by 25% under the current Liberal-Democrat and Conservative coalition.

The proposals suggest the post-study work route will be fully abolished, which implies that, without a job offer, non-EU students — who are often considered skilled workers — will be forced to return home after completing their courses. Together with additional reductions in other immigration tiers, the British government is planning to reduce the net immigration numbers by “tens of thousands.” This proposal is estimated to lower the immigration cap to 21,700 from this year onwards, 6,300 less than that in 2009.

Although it will only be implemented from April, the policy has already had negative effects on international students and educational institutions, and many doubt the policy is beneficial to the UK economy.

More harm than benefits

The policy has, first and foremost, worked to damage Britain’s long-standing reputation as a hub for skilled workers. The government, as well as many xenophobes, are still singing the old tune – foreigners are taking away jobs and local Britons will suffer from increased immigration. However, there is no statistical evidence linking the number of non-EU immigrants and unemployment or increasing social welfare costs in the UK. On the contrary, international students have been huge contributors to the economy. In 2009, the income from international students fee was worth more than £2.2 billion to British universities – a total of 9% of the education sector’s income. In addition, research from the UK Council for International Student Affairs found that international students have spent an extra £2.3 billion off-campus, providing a certain stimulus.

The curbing plan targeting non-EU international students will hit British universities’ incomes hard. Many MPs from constituencies that rely heavily on providing higher education and English-language courses to foreigners have shown concerns over the economic damage the policy will bring.

“If I had known that I would not be able to stay to find a job after I graduate, I would never have come to London,” says Jennifer Ting, a Singaporean student who has studied in the UK for more than four years. “It’s so expensive and I don’t know how many thousands of pounds I have paid. I have invested four years of my life here [in the UK], so that I can at least try to find a job. Now, I will not recommend any of my friends or family to come.”

Like many international students, Ting was most frustrated about the discrimination against her nationality, rather than her ability. “It is because I am not British that makes it difficult to find a job, not because I am not capable,” she says.

With the policy targeting students’ nationality, rather than ability, cultural diversity in the UK is likely to be affected: In the long run, it could weaken Britain’s attempts to remain a hub in a globalizing world economy.

Photo by Sara Noorbakhsh

“Limiting immigration will rob the UK of its diversity,” says Brendan Martin, Deputy Director of International Journalism at City University London. “There is a lot of talent in the world… If the doors are closed, then it will certainly do damage to the UK’s reputation as an international hub.”

More than 60 % of his students come from outside of the UK. However, Martin remains optimistic that the high standard of teaching in the UK will continue to attract overseas students and job-seekers, despite the coming changes.

Relevance in a global world

The erroneous impression exists that that by reducing the amount of incoming immigrants, the same amount of home-grown Britons will find employment. Reality is obviously more complex. A large amount of unemployed Britons, and others relying on the state, are low-skilled workers. Limiting the entry of an Indian immigrant in the IT sector does not enable local workers to take up that skilled job.

The British government now has to deal with the monumental task of re-training many tiers of the  British work force if it wants foreign companies to invest here. Foreign companies tend to hire staff with an understanding of both the native and British cultures. International students can provide insights and experience from their home countries and make the British society and economy more vibrant, multicultural and prepared for the future.

Many foreigners have the money and the desire to study in the UK, in the hope of finding a challenging and rewarding job. The proposed changes to immigration law, however, spat a clear message to the very same group of talented professionals that Britain needs: You Are Not Welcome Here. With the growing importance of East Asia, and the open-arms attitude that exists in many new centers of power like Shanghai towards foreign professionals, Britain is facing a larger battle than domestic immigration. It is fighting for relevance in the post-industrial global economy, after many painful decades of gradually ceding power to the United States, itself an empire in decline dealing with harsh domestic immigration debates.