UK student visa changes termed too little, too late

Updated September 15, 2019

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Students graduating between 2012 and 2020 say they feel cheated. — AFP/File
Students graduating between 2012 and 2020 say they feel cheated. — AFP/File

Suroor Rahimtoola graduated last year with a first class undergraduate degree from the prestigious University of Cambridge. But despite having an impressive academic record, her job prospects in the United Kingdom were bleak.

She was rejected by most firms because of her passport.

“Applying to 70 to 80 firms and being rejected by all of them because of your passport is really de-motivating,” she told Dawn.

The problem was not unique to Ms Rahimtoola, or even to those who had a Pakistani passport. Thanks to then-home secretary Theresa May, a 2012 change in visa policy for international students meant that any foreigners studying in the UK — at least 450,000 each year — had to leave the country within four months of graduation unless they found a job. The time limit rendered a job offer nearly impossible, as British firms largely avoid hiring individuals who would require a work visa sponsorship.

Students graduating between 2012 and 2020 say they feel cheated

Recently the British government reversed that policy so that from next year international students can stay on for two years after graduating. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it, the change has come about as the UK government realises that academic gains and scientific breakthroughs “wouldn’t be possible without [UK] being open to the brightest and the best from across the globe to study and work”.

While the news is being celebrated across campuses and even by prospective students, for many of those who graduated between 2012 and 2020, it has come too late.

Aveem Alvi, who graduated from the London School of Economics in 2015, said the development is great news for incoming students but the old rule was unfair on his cohort. “I feel cheated for only being given a few months to find work after graduation. Most of the Pakistani students in my year were not as lucky and had to return home. I find it very ironic that Brexit is what this conservative government has needed to realise the value of foreign students.”

Like Ms Rahimtoola and Mr Alvi, there are countless other students who went through the quicksand of a job hunt. Many recount their final year of university as a financial and emotional nightmare.

Aimen Mobin from the University of East Anglia said: “As if your final year isn’t nerve-racking on its own, the work policy for international students was another added strain.”

She described how travelling from her campus in Norwich to London and other cities for interviews was an ordeal. “I remember travelling all the way for one particular interview only to find out that they don’t sponsor visas — even though they were already aware that I was a non-EU, non-British citizen.”

Quratulain Azhar, who graduated this year from the University of Liverpool, said that even after clearing the initial hurdles of the job hunt, reaching the final stage of the hiring process only to be turned down is “very depressing”.

For future students, the new visa rule means these miseries will come to an end.

As Alistair Jarvis, chief executive officer of the Universities UK, put it: “The introduction of a two-year post-study work visa is something Universities UK has long campaigned for and we strongly welcome this policy change, which will put us back where we belong as a first choice study destination. Not only will a wide range of employers now have access to talented graduates from around the world, these students hold lifelong links in the UK.”

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2019