The unforeseen consequences of restricting the migration of student dependents

“Whilst understanding the UK government’s objective to control migration, the potential repercussions of curtailing this route could be substantial”

The recent announcement by the Home Office regarding the restriction of family migration for international students arriving in the UK, from January 2024, has gained significant attention in the context of rising migration figures.

The latest statistics from the ONS confirmed that net migration has peaked to 606,000 in the 12 months to December 2022; far higher than the government’s target – although the largest increase in these figures is down to visas being issued under the Ukraine Schemes and British National (Overseas) route.

A similar upward trend has affected sponsored study visas, with dependants of students accounting for 22% of all such visas, when it was previously less than 6%, according to the ONS.

However, whilst understanding the UK government’s objective to control migration, the potential repercussions of curtailing this route could be substantial.

International students make invaluable contributions to the UK’s higher education sector, economy and cultural diversity. By depriving international students of the crucial emotional support received from their dependants, which is pivotal for their well-being and academic success, this decision runs the risk of dissuading them from pursuing studies in the UK.

Further to this, many students have family obligations or compelling personal reasons for wanting their dependants to move with them.

This could have a ripple effect given that a significant number of these students eventually transition into Skilled Workers who fill labour shortages, contribute to driving economic growth and boost innovation.

This is even more important in light of the current economic climate as these Skilled Workers can take up jobs which are on the UK’s “shortage occupation list”, which include jobs such as biological scientists, engineers, programmers and health and care jobs. This concept is supported by the International Monetary Fund who have stated that immigration can help push down UK inflation.

Limiting dependants could potentially deter some students from selecting UK educational institutions, leading to a decline in international student enrolment. Consequently, this could result in financial challenges for universities where international students currently represent a valuable (in some cases essential) source of revenue which is critical to offset the additional investments universities had to make during the pandemic.

It is also likely to have a negative impact on the economy that relies on these students to eventually fill gaps in our labour market. The UK may see its competitive advantage decline and would be seen as less attractive compared to other countries that offer opportunities for students to bring their dependants with them. Ultimately this may have an impact on the UK’s global reputation as an inclusive destination for education.

In conclusion, the decision to exclude dependants of international students in the UK underpins the government’s policy to control net migration. Whilst this may see short-term gains in reducing overall numbers, there are potential negative consequences in terms of student experience, economic impacts, global competitiveness and cultural diversity. Striking a balance between migration control and the value (and values) that international students bring to the country is fundamental for our shared long-term success.

About the author: Bhavneeta Limbachia is a senior associate specialising in immigration law at law firm Russell-Cooke.