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UNITED KINGDOM: Government Struggles to Reduce Net Migration

Following the United Kingdom's changes to the Immigration Rules implemented on April 6, 2011, including the execution of an annual cap of 20,700 migrants to work in skilled professions under Tier 2 (General) of the Points-Based System, the coalition government continues to identify further restrictions to achieve its stated aim of reducing annual net migration to below 100,000 by 2015.

Changes to Tier 4 of the Points-Based System

A major public consultation on the reform of Tier 4 of the Points-Based System took place from December 7, 2010, to January 31, 2011. Initial changes to the Immigration Rules were subsequently implemented on April 21, 2011, including the introduction of an interim limit on sponsors who did not meet new accreditation criteria and changes to the English language requirement so that those coming to the United Kingdom (UK) to study at the degree level must demonstrate their ability to speak English at an upper intermediate level. Further amendments set forth before Parliament by Immigration Minister Damien Green in a written ministerial statement on June 13, 2011, took effect on July 4, 2011. These revisions include:

  • restricting work entitlements to those studying at higher educational institutions and publicly funded further education colleges only;
  • restricting the sponsorship of dependents to those studying at post-graduate levels at a higher educational institution and on a course lasting for 12 months or longer and government-sponsored students on courses lasting six months or longer;
  • requiring institutions to vouch that a student's new course represents genuine academic progression;
  • ensuring that maintenance funds are genuinely available to applicants by introducing a declaration on visa application forms;
  • committing to publish a list of financial institutions that are considered not to have verified financial statements to a satisfactory standard in the majority of a sample of cases;
  • introducing a streamlined application process for those considered to be "low risk" nationals (including Australian and U.S. nationals) applying to attend a course at a highly trusted sponsor. Applicants under this route will be required to submit fewer evidentiary documents;
  • extending the list of courses for which students must receive Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) clearance;
  • restricting the ability to offer accounting courses accredited by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) to those sponsors accorded platinum or gold status; and
  • clarifying the position of overseas universities with campuses in the UK.

Although a number of these changes appear to have been implemented to restrict abuse of the student migration system, it is equally apparent that changes to working entitlements and the sponsorship of migrants' dependents in particular are provisions primarily motivated by the coalition government's commitment to the reduction of net migration. Indeed, the UK Border Agency has stated that it is expected that these new policies are likely to lead to a net reduction of around 230,000 student migrants over the full term of the current government, a figure inconsistent with the commitment of an annual reduction of 70,000 to 80,000 student migrants given by Home Secretary Theresa May on March 22, 2011.

The forthcoming changes have led to comments from the higher education sector that the coalition government is jeopardizing an industry worth £40 billion annually to the UK economy. Additionally, an official UK Border Agency published impact statement indicates that reforms will cost more than £3.2 billion over the next four years in economic output and a further £330 million in lost tuition and immigration application fees. Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has expressed concern that the impact statement shows that "changes to student visa rules will reduce growth and exports." It certainly appears that the amendments due to be implemented to the student migration system are inconsistent with the coalition government's priority of economic recovery, as well as with the stated aim of continuing to attract "the brightest and the best" migrants to the UK.

Consultation on Employment-Related Settlement

A 12-week public consultation on reforms to the routes to indefinite leave to remain in the UK -- commonly referred to as settlement -- available to employment-based migrants began on June 9, 2011. The consultation will address Tiers 1, 2, and 5 of the Points-Based System and Overseas Domestic Workers. Damien Green has asserted that the consultation is focused on breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration and expressed the concern that "settlement has almost become automatic for those who choose to stay." The consultation document outlines a number of proposals for consideration:

  • Defining Tier 2 as "temporary" to end any assumption that settlement will be available for migrants who enter the UK under this category;
  • Considering whether certain categories of Tier 2 migrants of particular economic or social value to the UK should retain an automatic route to settlement;
  • Creating a new category that would allow the most exceptional Tier 2 migrants to apply for settlement after three years. Other Tier 2 migrants would be allowed to stay in the UK for a maximum period of five years, after which they and their dependents would be expected to leave;
  • Introducing a new English language requirement for adult dependents of Tier 2 migrants applying to switch into a settlement route;
  • Considering restricting the maximum period of leave in Tier 5 (Temporary Workers) to 12 months, as well as removing their ability to sponsor dependents and raising the minimum skill level in the government-authorized exchange scheme to graduate level; and
  • Abolishing the route for overseas domestic workers or considering restricting leave to a six-month period as a visitor or 12 months where accompanying a Tier 1 or Tier 2 migrant, as well as ceasing to grant settlement to domestic workers in diplomatic households.

It is apparent that these proposals have the potential to restrict significantly the routes to settlement for those who have entered the UK under employment-based routes, although further details on the implementation of such proposals will not be available until the conclusion of the consultation on September 9, 2011, and parliamentary approval of the subsequent statement of changes to the Immigration Rules.

There continues to be disquiet in the business community that the coalition government's economic policies restrict business growth because of the lack of flexibility in recruitment that they have caused, a perspective previously corroborated by Business Secretary Vince Cable. Although the proposals outlined in the consultation document would be unlikely to be of relevance to businesses seeking to employ overseas migrants on a short-term basis, they would certainly be of concern to organizations with long-term business strategy and recruitment considerations. It is arguable that multinational organizations may be discouraged from establishing and continuing overseas businesses in the UK as a result of the restrictions that these proposals would impose.


It is apparent that the coalition government continues to implement robust changes to UK immigration law to achieve its commitment to reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by the next general election. However, the success of these policies to date may be questioned. The Office for National Statistics figures published on May 26, 2011, state that net migration to the UK has increased by almost 100,000 to 243,000 in the past 12 months. This is partially due to a reduction in levels of emigration. While these figures indicate that attaining an annual net migration to the UK of fewer than 100,000 is unlikely to be an attainable target within the stated timeframe, it additionally indicates that increasingly forceful immigration policies are likely to be implemented if the government is to continue to pursue its stated aim.

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