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New restrictions on family members of overseas students

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has announced a new policy that will limit the ability of overseas students to bring their family members to the UK. The policy, which will come into effect for students starting courses from January 2024, is part of the government’s efforts to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”.

According to the Home Office, the number of visas granted to dependants of sponsored students has increased from 16,000 in 2019 to 136,000 in 2022, an eight-fold rise that has contributed to the record high net migration figures. The latest statistics, expected to be released on Thursday, will show that net migration reached more than 700,000 in the year ending December 2022, nearly three times the rate before Brexit.

Under the new rules, only overseas students on courses designated as research programmes, such as PhDs or research-related masters degrees, will be able to bring dependants with them. This will affect around 80% of the current student dependants who are mostly spouses or children of students on undergraduate or taught postgraduate courses.

The Home Secretary said that the policy was aimed at curbing “inappropriate” applications by “unscrupulous” education providers and agents who “sell immigration, not education”. She said that the policy would strike the right balance between acting decisively on tackling net migration and protecting the economic benefits that students can bring to the UK.

However, the policy has been criticised by some education experts and student groups who argue that it will harm the UK’s reputation as a welcoming destination for international students and their families. They also warn that it will have negative impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of students who will be separated from their loved ones for long periods of time.

Dr Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said that the policy was “a cruel and unnecessary attack on international students and their families”. She said that it would “send a message to the world that the UK does not value or respect them”.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said that the policy was “a huge own goal” that would damage the UK’s competitiveness in the global education market. He said that it would “reduce diversity on our campuses, lower our soft power and hit our economy”.

The policy is a reversal of a decision made in 2019 by then-Home Secretary Priti Patel who extended the post-study work rights of overseas students from four months to two years and allowed them to switch to work routes before completing their studies. The decision was welcomed by universities and students as a way to attract more talent and boost the UK’s economy.

The Home Office said that it would review the maintenance requirements for students and dependants and crack down on education providers who do not meet high standards. It also said that it would keep matters under review and seek to strike a balance between reducing net migration and ensuring that businesses have the skills they need.

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