Devolving Immigration – A Lifeline For The International Student Community


The SNP recently announced it wants powers regarding immigration devolved to Scotland, so that they can re-introduce the post-study work visa. All around Scotland, International students (and friends of!) briefly gave this news an interested glance; the repercussions of such a plan actually taking place would be incredibly exciting. Before we look at the potential results, here is some context:

  • The Tier 1 Post-Study Work Visa (tied to the ‘Points Based Immigration System introduced in 2008) enabled International students to work in the UK upon completion of their degree for up to two years before applying for a work permit.
  • This system in itself was actually regulation by Labour rather than de-regulation – the system used previously (Highly Skilled Migrant Programme) was more flexible and welcoming, enabling students to apply for work permits under more relaxed criteria.
  • The Conservative-Liberal coalition decommissioned this visa in 2012 as a step to ‘tackle the immigration problem’. As a result, students now have a window of a few months to find a job – within a very narrow range of sectors – that has a minimum starting salary of £21,000 per annum (yes, a graduate job in the current climate of that level), with the employer then also requiring to go through an arduous process to enable them to be ‘sponsors’ for this visa.

The net result, obviously, is that International Students struggle to stay and find work. Post-degree celebrations are marred by the melancholy of leaving the place you have settled in. I lost four very good friends this summer who all tried (and failed) to find something – anything! – that would keep them working in their adopted country of residence. This is common.

So when the Independence campaign kicked off, and the ‘Yes’ camp clearly laid out their plans for returning a provision to enable International students to stay, a lot of International students got involved. One of the clearest arguments that resonated from the ‘Yes’ camp with regards to ‘differences’ was just how starkly different a new Scotland’s immigration plans were from the direction Westminster travelled in, and this was a crucial part of that. It was one of the first reasons that grabbed me, as well as several other International students – here was a Nationalist movement that wanted to help me stay in my adopted country.

The current laws are detrimental to all involved in the sector. Principals of Universities hate it as it has a clear effect in their recruitment of International students. Students and academic staff hate it for reasons detailed above already. Businesses hate it since it adds a massive layer of bureaucracy when finding and appointing workers. The laws have also had absolutely no positive impact in the jobs available to British workers – we’ve seen unemployment figures, the inequality figures, the skew towards low-paid work.

Of course, that’s before we even discuss the social impact of bringing in hundreds of thousands of International students into a country every year – bringing in millions into the economy – and then sending them the clear signal that they aren’t wanted.

We’ve seen how conversations about immigration have progressed over the past two years. This issue is completely off the table as far as the Conservatives are concerned. Labour’s current offering amounts to removing International Students from the migration figures – a move that has no tangible gains for students, rather simply a move for the government to claim “hi, well, since you don’t count now, hurrah look how much we did to cut immigration!” This is simply more fuel for them to shout about how tough they’re being on ‘them foreigners.’

Labour cannot be trusted to bring about this change in any case – remember, it was the Blair Government that brought in this visa in 2008 as a cut to migration – and Ed Miliband’s recent rhetoric around immigration is enough evidence that there is nothing progressive on this issue coming from that particular party.

A ‘No’ vote robbed that opportunity for International students to build an inclusive immigration system here in Scotland, and by and large hope was dead. I was very open about the very personal impact that vote had on me; it dictated my chances – and future international students’ chances – of calling Scotland home or not. I was devastated.

So at this point, hope’s fairly dead in terms of policies from parties down south. Then enter the devolution commission and SNP’s latest proposal, a move that’s backed by their ‘Yes’ campaign allies the Scottish Greens. Let’s briefly put in context just how many people this policy would affect – 40% (that’s upwards of 8,000 people) of our student populace in the University of Edinburgh is currently on the Tier 4 visa. Several of the Scottish Universities pride themselves on their international intake, and this is a massive lift in a hope we thought was dead.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m probably of the belief that immigration would be the last detail to be devolved by the Smith Commission. There’s enough scare-mongering flying around from the other Westminster parties to try and make devolved immigration unfeasible. But the very fact that the SNP have brought this back on the table, at a time of massive immigration scaremongering, and making a clear statement that they want the opportunity to actually make international students feel welcome here – that’s something. That’s hope.

Like I said before, 40% of our student populace is currently on that Tier 4 system that makes it nigh on impossible for them to stay in their adopted country. I can’t think of a better policy for them to get behind. There’s hope once again – perhaps fleeting – but a recognition that we haven’t been forgotten about.

Dash Sekhar
National Collective