Several weeks ago, I found myself at an event held at the European Parliament Office in the United Kingdom, cornered by a half-Indian, half-Finnish member of UKIP who was brainstorming different ways I could extend my visa after graduation. It’s an odd time to be an American student in Britain.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C. and a product of the American public school system, I have been delighted to undertake a master’s degree in the London School of Economics European Institute. Unlike most of my coursemates, however, I come with an expiration date.
When entering the country, I go through a different line. The long one. While UK Border Agents, who by now know more about my personal life than my own parents, are unfailingly friendly and greet me as “our American friend,” I am not always treated as such. It sometimes feels a miracle that I could even get to the border. The process for acquiring a Tier 4 student visa is, in a word, cumbersome. Currently on my third UK visa and now intimately familiar with the rules and regulations, the process obtaining my latest student visa was no less tedious than before, involving four months, travel between four countries, my passport being held for ransom in New York, and costing nearly $1,000 (having opted for the cheapest route). To add to the tale, my wallet was recently taken during a bus ride through central London. Since I have plans to travel outside of Britain for university work within the next three months, I was required to pay a £556 service charge and spend over four hours in Croydon’s immigration centre in the hopes that I might receive a replacement visa within the next two weeks. I cannot leave Britain until I receive the card, and the only way the waiting period could be further sped up is by using the super premium service, a bargain at £9,306. This will last until January 2018 at which point, unless I have acceptable cause to stay, I must leave the country.
There is more to being an international student than just studying. You have a chance to become deeply involved in the host culture. Over the past three years, I have developed a passion for devolved politics in the UK, attending events at Westminster and streaming the Welsh First Minister’s Question online (when not watching an embarrassing number of episodes of Come Dine With Me), have a national insurance number, a TV licence, and a very respectable number of points on my Tesco Clubcard, and could not imagine a morning without Marmite. I pay taxes where they are due, volunteer and give to British charities, and have a genuine desire to contribute actively to British society. Upon graduation, I would like to find a job, with a preference for one that will allow me to put my knowledge of devolved Welsh politics to use. This will be, however, an incredible uphill challenge. On 23 February 2017, Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised that: “The UK will always be a welcoming place for people who want to come here, work here, and contribute to our economy.” Along with previous Home Secretaries continually tightening student visa allowances, this is not the case. Very few companies in the UK are able to offer Tier 2 visas, a requirement of non-EU citizens to work in the UK. Of those that do and are willing to go through the sponsorship process (the mood of which has soured following negative press on immigration over the last few years), the company must prove that the non-EU citizen they would like to hire is more qualified than any EU applicants. Non-EU students are either given a look of pity or laughed out of the office of university career centres if they say they would like to find a future full-time job in the UK.
The BBC reported yesterday that net migration (this includes students) has finally fallen. The BBC’s televised version of the news expressed disappointment in the falling number of students solely because of the “warnings that institutions will lose vital income.” Between the visa process and such rhetoric, it would seem international students are respected only as walking pocketbooks. There is little mind for the innovation or the cross-cultural connections built, which include language exchange, development of professional networks, and bonds between home and host countries. There is also little regard for the ties and relationships that individual students themselves build during their time in the UK. The answer to immigration, I would argue, is not to pull up the drawbridge on international students for the sake of getting net migration numbers down. Countries across the world send their best and brightest to UK, and through the high calibre of a UK degree, here we become even brighter and better. For the benefit of both sides, we deserve a chance.
Elisabeth Laird studies at the London School of Economics and is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.