Educating Beyond Borders: Students With a Rightful Grievance

Posted by Natalie Bennett on 17th December 2016

In 2010, visa rules for international students changed. Recently I met with a representative of some of the students who’ve been left in a disastrous, unreasonable situation as a result who’ve got together with supporters to form Educating Beyond Borders (EBB). They have effectively been defrauded of very large sums of money, paid in good faith on the expectation they would achieve complete qualifications.

To fully achieve professional qualifications in a number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) and VET (Vocational Education and Training Courses), there’s a requirement for students to work in a supervised way for a period after completing the academic components of a university course. In total it is thought 415 STEM and 222 VET courses are affected. So for example to become a RIBA-qualified (Royal Institute of British Architects) architect, you have to work in an approved practice for two years before taking a final exam. Only after that can you get your qualification.

Students pay £200,000 or even more for courses, and then do the work (explicitly excluded by law from minimum wage legislation because it is part of their training). Yet in 2010, for visa purposes, this was reclassified as “employment” for international students. Instead of being able to complete this period under a “Tier 4” student visa, the students have to find a way to get a far more difficult “Tier 2” working visa. For some it’s impossible, for others it is extraordinarily difficult and expensive. It is going to be the students of relatively less means who find it the most difficult.

Yet many students started their studies before the rules changed – they, and any other student who started their course in good faith, should at a minimum be able to complete their studies and the achieve the qualifications they’ve paid for, under Tier 4. More, universities should not be offering these courses to new foreign students unless they have government guarantees that they’ll be able to complete the practical part of the course they’re paying huge sums for.

This situation needs to be distinguished from an issue affecting many students that at first glance looks similar, and is often confused with it. That’s the issue of “post-study visas”, the right for which was removed in 2012. This allowed all non-EU graduates to remain in the UK for two years after their studies to work – a highly valued right that allowed students to then return to their home countries with combined practical and academic experience.

The loss of this been blamed in part for the plummeting numbers of students from the sub-Continent. It’s an important issue, but a different one from what the EBB is addressing. More, there’s an even bigger underlying issue here, about which I’m hearing increasing concern – that universities are treating non-EU students as “cash cows”, not properly meeting their needs or reasonable expectation. And there are accounts of universities using the threat of immigration officers to try to extract money from students and bring them into line. And disturbing suggestions that students are getting a message that they’ll put their status in danger if they take part in political activities while they’re here. Very disturbing when you’d hope one of the “British values” they’d be learning about here is the right to peaceful political activity.