The British government on Tuesday said it would prevent thousands of international students from bringing family members with them into the country, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced growing political pressure to curb rapidly rising immigration numbers.
Under the new measures, only postgraduate research students will be entitled to visas for dependents, ending a system under which others, such as those on master’s courses, were allowed them too.
The announcement came just two days before the release of official figures that are expected to show that net migration has risen to a record level. Last year it climbed to 504,000 — its highest number yet — for the 12 months between June 2021 to June 2022.
To the embarrassment of the ruling Conservative government, net migration is now significantly higher than before Brexit, which removed the automatic right of European Union citizens to work in Britain, a move that was welcomed by most supporters of Britain’s exit from the bloc. During the referendum on Brexit, its supporters promised to “take back control” of the country’s frontiers, and many proponents of the move expected immigration to fall.
“We have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of student dependents being brought into the country with visas,” said the home secretary, Suella Braverman, adding that the number of dependent visas had increased by 750 percent since 2019, rising to a total of 136,000 people.
It was, she added in a statement, “time for us to tighten up this route to ensure we can cut migration numbers and meet the government’s pledge to the British people to cut net migration.”
Though Mr. Sunak has put the focus on tackling illegal immigration and stopping the flow of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel from France on small boats, concern about legal migration is also growing among his own Conservative Party lawmakers. Challenged on the issue last week Mr. Sunak admitted that the numbers were “too high.”
The issue of immigration is proving a difficult one for Ms. Braverman, a home secretary whose views are hawkish on the subject. Numbers increased after Britain’s decision to admit tens of thousands of people fleeing from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine, but that only covers part of the increase.
Yet adding restrictions is difficult when Britain is suffering a labor shortage and surging inflation, and hard-pressed employers have lobbied to expand the number of visas available for jobs that have proved hard to fill, from health care to fruit picking.
The measures announced on Tuesday aim to cut migration numbers while limiting the impact on the economy.
According to government statistics, Nigeria had the highest number of visas for student dependents, 60,923 in 2022, an increase from 1,586 in 2019. Indian nationals had the second highest number, at 38,990 up from 3,135 in the same period. In total there were almost 120,000 dependent visas granted in 2022 to the top five nationalities, which were Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Other changes announced on Tuesday include a requirement that international students complete their studies before they can start working in Britain. In a related move Ms. Braverman also promised to clamp down on “unscrupulous education agents,” who, she said, may be essentially selling “immigration not education.” The new restrictions will come into force in January.
Undergraduates are currently not allowed to bring dependents, and many of those on short courses of less than a year are not counted in the migration statistics.
Some critics doubt that the new restrictions will reduce net migration figures significantly, while others point to a risk to the huge revenue international students generate.
In a statement Jamie Arrowsmith, the director of Universities UK International, which represents the sector, said that the announcement “provides some clarity for students and universities after many months of rumor and speculation; but leaves some questions unanswered.”
“Our research shows that international students make a huge economic contribution to the U.K., with a single cohort delivering a total benefit of £41.9 billion,” he added.
“We also know that the public are overwhelmingly supportive of the international students we attract — just 9 percent of people think we should be discouraging international students from choosing the U.K.”