The Conservative Disdain for International Students

There is something called a hedonic refugee. It’s not really a “real” thing per se, but for those who fall under the moniker it feels very real. These are immigrants who have not left their country for safety or economic security, but rather for their mental health. They feel more connected to a country that is not the one they were born in. They are outsiders in their own hometowns.

It is incredibly isolating.

I know how lonely this is because I am one of these people. I am American, and yet from the time I was young I have associated much more strongly with the United Kingdom. After hard work, several failed attempts at securing a visa, and a lot of dreaming, I was finally able to make the move in 2016.

I also know the devastation and mental health toll that is taken when the country you love kicks you out in order to appease an anti-immigrant electorate.

Let’s go back in time to the beginning of university, 11 years ago. As soon as I had any control over my education and path, I began to study European politics and history. When it came time to choose a study abroad program, I found one that focused on the EU. Over the course of the semester, I studied the workings of the union while also traveling to nine member states to meet with leaders in order to better understand how the EU worked. I focused my studies specifically on the UK’s role within the EU, including representing the country in the program’s Model EU. I was more invested than ever, and began seriously researching visa options to move to the UK.

I realized quickly that it’s nearly impossible for non-EU citizens to move there, save for on a student visa. But there was something called the post-study visa that gave students two years following graduation to remain in the UK and find a job. As I wanted to gain some professional experience first, I put the master’s degree on the five-year plan and went back to America to find a job.

I ended up working for six years in international relations and politics. And then, after months of research, writing entrance essays, and stress as I waited to hear about applications, I accepted my place at King’s College London as a master’s student of European politics. I was thrilled to learn more about Britain and the EU, and positively ecstatic to finally achieve the most important goal of my life with this move.

However, in the years since university graduation, then-Home Secretary Theresa May had overseen the repeal of the two-year post-study visa I mentioned earlier, because, to use her direct quote, “The old student visa regime failed to control immigration. The new system is designed to ensure students come for a limited period, to study not work.” The odds were now against me remaining permanently but I had to take that chance. I know how idealistic I sound, but I simply couldn’t imagine a world in which I lost this battle. It was too important. I was already well-versed in the relationship between the UK and EU, and about to become much more so with a master’s degree in the subject from one of the world’s top universities. Surely I would find something, especially as it became increasingly clear that the UK was going to need all the help it could get to navigate Brexit.

As an international student, I paid nearly twice as much as my British and EU friends in tuition fees. At some universities, it’s even higher. But a £32,000 loan was simply the price I had to pay for the life I had been working towards since I was a teenager. I didn’t know that it was possible for a human to be as happy as I was in those first few months. However, that happiness was no thanks in part to the British government. My second week of classes saw the infamous “Citizens of Nowhere” speech, which honestly amused me more than anything. What an absurd statement for anyone, much less the Prime Minister of such a diverse country, to make. More worrying came a pledge by her government that same week to cut student visas by nearly half in an attempt to meet the British public’s expectation of fewer immigrants.

International students, and as a reminder this means non-EU students, have been a common target for the Conservatives in recent years, even going so far as a 2014 suggestion to actually force students to leave within days of their courses ending. Thankfully, that policy was never passed. Currently, students are given four months to leave. My visa expired exactly two weeks after I walked across the graduation stage. Even job-hunters with the right to work in the country might have a hard time finding employment within that time frame. For those of us with visa restrictions, that task is nearly impossible.

A basic description of the hiring process for non-British or EU citizens is as follows: in general, we need something called a Tier 2 visa. This is obtained through a company paying the British government an annual fee of £1,000 to employ us. Not every company can do this though; first they must apply for a Tier 2 sponsorship license. There are a limited number of licenses that the government issues each year, so there isn’t a guarantee that a license will be granted even if I were offered employment. There is an official government list of companies that already hold this license, so when I was applying I only applied to companies on the list.

There are also rules regarding an immigrant’s pay rate. In general, the minimum salary for the Tier 2 visa is £30,000, though there are exceptions that may allow it to be lower (such as nurses and teachers). On top of these, our potential employer must issue something called a Resident Labor Market Test, in order to prove that no British or EU worker could be doing our job. A position must be posted for at least 28 days, on at least two separate job sites, with no successful applicants from Britain or the EU, for us to be considered for the role.

International students, however, are exempt from this test while they are still on the student visa, as well as exempt from the annual £1,000 quid fee for the first three years of employment. But when restricted to a mere four months to find a job, it is rather difficult to actually make use of these exemptions. Nor do most employers seem to know that these exemptions exist, with the result that I only know one international student who found employment in time, my Pakistani flat mate from the student halls who is now working for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Anti-immigration groups often point out that since the repeal of the post-study visa, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of international students who have managed to switch to a Tier 2 visa in time. Migration Watch and others say this is proof that the UK has little need for international students once we have paid our steep tuition fees, as companies have found British or EU citizens to fill the roles. But here is the thing: I was the oldest person in my grad program, and had six years of work experience compared with most people who had gone directly from undergrad to grad school. We all applied to very similar positions, and happily my British friends all found employment within few months. I, meanwhile, applied to over 100 jobs in the four months I was given, and did not receive a single interview. I did, however, receive multiple messages from sympathetic HR managers saying something along the lines of, “we would interview you if the political climate was different.”

Students are also unique amongst immigrant categories, as we are by far the most likely immigrant to return home. Take me out of this of course, but the vast majority of international students come for a degree and an experience, with every intention to then return home and move on with their lives. This includes students from developing countries, because they tend to want to use their education to assist their country and just, you know, be home. In my personal experience, of the 25 or so international students I knew, only three of us tried to stay.

But in recent years, international students have often been vilified as people seeking not an education but, as Mrs. May has constantly said, a back-doors way into the UK. For years, the Office of National Statistics estimated that around 100,000 international students overstayed their visas each year. This meant that the official government line was that around 30% of all international students become illegal immigrants. Then, in August 2017, came the report that in fact that number was just over 1%. The government tried to back-pedal, saying that prior to 2016 there was no mechanism in which to monitor a student’s whereabouts, so they had simply guessed. Now that exit checks are in place, it is clear that international students are not the deviants that Mrs. May has continually insisted us to be.

Imagine the arrogance required to think that so many highly skilled, well-educated people would rather live in your country, existing in the subhuman status given to illegal immigrants, than return to their homes.

By taking away the post-study visa, the Tories are merely keeping out the (small) minority of international students like me who want to take the education the UK gave us and give back to the country. There is no logic in giving us these skills and then forcing us to contribute them to a different economy.

But as the overall debate surrounding immigration shows, we cannot use economics to justify the necessity of international students. The majority of economists agree that immigration is a benefit to society, and that the more diverse a workforce, the more profitable it tends to be. And let’s not even bother discussing how the Tories demonize us while happily accepting our double-tuition rates and £20 billion annual contribution to the economy.

Nor is it fair to only discuss immigration in economic terms, as first and foremost these policies affect the lives of human beings.

In addition, the elephant in the room must addressed.

Quite simply, there is a reason you rarely hear about Americans, Australians, or Canadians in any conversation surrounding immigration. Before this story, have you ever pictured someone like me — an upper-middle class, well-educated, white, native English speaker — as being this negatively impacted by strict international student and immigration policies? And remember my friend I mentioned earlier, the brilliant young woman from Pakistan who found a job in time to stay? The week before our student visas were to expire, we had dinner together one last time. At this point, she had already switched from the student visa to Tier 2. But over pad thai, she showed me an email the Home Office had sent her. This not-so-professional correspondence was in all caps, bolded, and underlined, with a curt, “your visa expires shortly. Ensure you have made arrangements to leave the United Kingdom.” Meanwhile, I and the other American who failed to find a Tier 2 sponsor in time received no such email. But I’m sure Mrs. May would explain this away as a clerical error.

Unfortunately for me, the degree that I am very in debt for is not tremendously useful in the States. Transatlantic relations is very small sector in the US, which should somewhat deflate the Leave campaign’s dream of stronger relations with America post-Brexit. Had I studied Asia, the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America, I would have my pick of jobs. But Europe? The likelihood that I will use the knowledge I gained from King’s in a professional setting is very small. A £32,000 loan for a relatively useless piece of paper in the country I am allowed to work in, as I watch jobs posted daily in London and the rest of the UK begging for Brexit assistance that I could provide.

I miss curries. And sticky toffee pudding. And pubs. The rail network that British people swear is terrible but I found magnificent compared to the American Amtrak system. I miss the diversity of London, and the ease of travel to neighboring countries. I miss that, for the most part, the Tories aren’t remotely as conservative as American conservatives. I miss the NHS and the seemingly thousands of accents in a relatively confined space. I miss the general ease of public transportation.

But mostly, I miss the life that I had established and dreamed about for so long. I miss my apartment, my friends, and my boyfriend. I worked so hard to obtain that life and it somehow surpassed what were exceedingly, unrealistically high expectations. I found the home I was seeking. And then I lost it to appease an electorate that I never hurt.

I stayed in London until the day before my student visa expired. And that day, I cried into my scarf for 11 straight hours, from the front door of my flat in Greenwich to the front door of my father’s house in America. And yes, I’m aware that no Brit would ever act like that in public. But as I was reminded more that day than any other, I am not welcome to be British.