Nandita Dogra – postdoctoral researcher in CCS

The ‘Kingdom’ Strikes Twice- Double Whammy on Post-study Skilled Immigrants.

by Nandita Dogra

The Government of the United Kingdom expects a set of its immigrants already within UK to perform a special miracle – time travel. It has asked its skilled Post-study Work (PSW) visa-holders to go back in time and conjure up additional earnings for the preceding/current annual period in order to retrospectively fulfil two revisions in the conditions for Highly-Skilled Migration Programme (HSMP) brought in on 6 April 2010 and then again on 19 July 2010.

I am compelled to write this piece as I realise how uninformed people, especially my fellow ‘progressive’ middle classes who are forever claiming to be ‘pro-immigration’, ‘fairness’ and ‘human rights’ and usually focusing on the truly ‘needy’ amongst the immigrants, are about immigration. The immediate purpose is to highlight two recent instances of arbitrariness and sheer stealth and lawlessness- skilled PSWs already in the UK are being effectively and retrospectively capped out by not one but two sets of detrimental changes introduced within less than four months by both Labour and Conservative-LibDem governments, a fact which has found little space in the media. It is hoped that this piece would also be read in the legal and political circles who will act upon it to revoke these revisions thrust upon PSWs.

The moot question and one that is easily missed is- who are the immigrants? While the total number of migrants remains confusing with different figures being thrown up to prove any and every point, the statistics further blur the distinctions amongst immigrants to abet the war cries against immigrants. Media discourses and public opinion too tend to lump immigrants into broad, usually two, boxes of ‘white’ (Euro-American-Australian) and ‘non-white’ (‘Third World’).  The former do not really matter (read as we cannot see them as separate we do not want to know how, their usually opportunistic, comings and goings affect our economy- it must be a good thing, no question of asking them to prove their loyalty to ‘British’ values and nation- they are one of ‘us’). The whole debate on immigration is about the latter and the conflation of the myriad categories of these immigrants, defined both by the government and actually existing on the ground, results in generalisations, hysteria, mismanagement, perverse policies which often even harm Britain and her interests and, of course, untold problems for the immigrants.

The shrill voices against the ‘spongers’ of Britain and her welfare systems- asylum-seekers, family members of often working class first or second generation immigrant British citizens who tend to be ‘over-reproductive’ and add to the already-full nation- are the staple of many debates and  I do not want to add to the noise pollution. But what about that segment of ‘non-whites’ whom Britain, in its official rhetoric and policies, needs and actively seeks usually competing with other ‘developed’ nations who also claim to want them in their own countries? These are the skilled categories both in education and employment. It is time to highlight some key issues about them and the Points-based System (PBS) they fall under. I will not provide complete details of this system not only because anyone really interested can easily access them through the relevant government websites but because they are a virtual minefield of ever-changing legalese and government-speak that only the brave (or the stuck immigrants) can wade through. I will merely highlight the main rules under this system, especially of the Highly-skilled Migration Programme (HSMP) and some individual stories of the lost children of this system to make the readers aware of what exactly the system allows and expects and to judge for themselves the policies of governments and underlying ideologies they reflect.

Regarding students, the only point worth highlighting is that every international student pays tuition fee that is approximately four times of what is paid by a British citizen. There are some exceptions depending on the college and degree with some Masters and MBA degrees, particularly in the high-ranked institutions, charging the same fees from both sets of students. Except for those who get scholarships and other help, there is no subsidy for international students. Foreign students are, hence, a huge, often the major, source of income for many educational institutions. Those who complain about annual tuition fees of £3000 should take a moment to reflect on the struggles of those who have to meet such quadrupled sums. And before we begin arguing about rich ‘Arab’ and ‘American’ students, it should be stressed that international students are far from homogenous and come from different nations and financial backgrounds. What is clear is that the higher education fees structure implicitly weeds out any ‘sponging’ by, first, checking the financial credentials of potential students and then making the students do whatever it takes- beg, borrow, earn- to meet their education costs. Foreign students also have no “recourse to public funds” i.e. any help from the government and the study period does not count towards rights of stay in the UK even if this period lasts 5 years or more, for example, for a doctorate. Yes there are many dodgy educational institutions with fake students that the government is not aware of/aware but doing nothing about/indirectly encouraging the establishment and perpetuation of linked to its own policies and structures, and these should be curbed but foreign students in established UK institutions subsidise the country, not the other way around.

On completion of higher education, an international student can stay on in the UK for a limited period, again without any rights to public funds or resident-ship under the ‘Post-study Work Visa’ (PSW). This rule was brought in only a few years back after comparative reviews with other nations, especially the USA, Australia and New Zealand, to discourage students from preferring these countries. Initially, it was open only to postgraduates and the period allowed was a year which was later increased to a maximum of 2 years. Anyone applying for PSW must fulfill specific criteria of education, financial backup and savings to take care of self and family and of course English language. PSW is strictly a transition period during which one has to unequivocally prove one’s ‘fitness’ to stay on in the UK. It is the time allowed to get sponsored by an employer or meet the difficult conditions of HSMP that is the visa one ‘graduates’ to. HSMP is a scheme to sift the highly skilled from the non-skilled and there is no arguing that it does require laying down certain criteria. The trouble is that instead of fixing these criteria for a reasonable period the government repeatedly keeps manipulating the sub criteria for attributes and changing both the minimum level and weightage of each criterion. In other words, ‘high skills’ keep getting redefined at a frenetic pace as per the immediate politics and then dumped on to the immigrants. This makes the same person suddenly ineligible after already having started his/her period under the visa.

Over the last few years the fitness tests namely the criteria for HSMP have been made more and more stringent with the rules being changed almost each year and even during the course of a current valid visa. The changes include increase in both the overall period of HSMP from 4 to 5 years as well as hikes in income required resulting in litigations as many have lost their visas despite fulfilling the conditions for a significant part of the required period. These changes have been brought in quietly by later Labour government as a part of its tough on immigration policy, a fact neither the party concerned nor the new government would care to call attention to now.

In June this year the new government declared an immigration ‘cap’ with immediate effect and stricter conditions for HSMP. The general impression is that this cap and revised conditions would not affect the highly skilled who are already here but this is incorrect. Further, what very few realise is that HSMP conditions had already been made extremely stringent less than three months back in April by the outgoing Labour government and applied retrospectively to PSWs. The new government, totally ignoring the recent revisions, has brought in a second revision which means that two detrimental changes have been brought in by UK during the same year within less than 4 months, flagrantly changing the conditions of those who are already here.

Revised position for existing PSW visa holders on 6 April 2010 (Labour Government)

To pass the points-based assessment and be accepted into the highly skilled worker category, you must score a total of 95 points- a) 75 points for your attributes (age, qualifications, previous earnings, and experience in the United Kingdom), b) 10 points for English language; and, c) 10 points for available maintenance (funds). On 6 April 2010 the criteria for attributes were changed across the subcategories of age, qualifications, previous earnings and experience. As it is the subtotal of these points that makes one qualify or disqualify any reduction in the points of one implies that one must increase the points for another which is usually impossible during the given period. Each extra earnings range of £5-10,000 per year (depending on one’s age and other factors) qualifies for 5 or 10 points. In April the minimum income for all was increased and applied also to the PSWs already in the UK.

Illustration- X is a 32 year old post-graduate from a UK university on a PSW visa. For her age, qualifications and UK experience she gets a total of 50 points (10-Age, 5- UK experience, 35 -MA). Soon after she began her PSW last year, she got a job with £38,000 per annum salary (which equals 40 points then), no mean achievement if we see average earnings in the UK and more so during these recessionary times. As she needs to show documentary proof of at least 12 months’ continuous work and income, she can apply for the HSMP only after the new rules have been brought in, according to which, her current salary, which was way above the qualifying limit when she started PSW, is no longer enough. So she can either accept her sudden, totally unjustified, disqualification and write off the massive tuition fees, taxes and visa fees paid and leave UK or she must somehow ‘manage’ an extra income of £2000 for the same annual period and show an income of £40,000 that would get her 5 extra points and enable her to qualify for the revised HSMP and satisfy the authorities. Numerous other examples can be worked out. In April the Labour Government also reduced the points given for a PhD leading to similar problems for those affected in addition to the general hike in income requirements.

Re-revised position for existing visa holders on 19 July 2010 (Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government)

The qualifying points for income, age and qualifications have been raised from 75 to 80 (total from 95 to 100). The coalition government’s move fails to consider that tightening had already been done by the previous government which officially kept the points at 75 but raised the conditions to attain these points. The net effect of each is real and the two consecutive changes have piled up to adversely affect the PSWs twice.


X, whose example was given earlier, is now required to gain 30 points, instead of 25 as she was expected to do on/after 6 April 2010, from her current/preceding annual earnings. This means a salary of £50,000- X has to conjure up an extra £10,000 per annum, in addition to the extra £2000 required of her in April (she could do this prospectively if she still has 12 more months of a valid PSW visa left and can find a job that pays her £50,000 per annum during these recessionary times- clearly a near impossible task. And who knows how many revisions will come into force during the next 12 months?).

The 3 different minimum qualifying annual  income levels that X has to maintain, depending on the date on which she submits her HSMP application, are given below to highlight the illegality, unfairness and sheer absurdity of the changed rules –

March 2010- £26000 (=25 points)

April 2010- £40,000 (=25 points)

July 2010- £50,000 (=30 points)

Within 4 months, to attain 25-30 points for earnings one has to earn nearly double the income till March 2010 (£26,000) – the qualifying income has been hiked first by 14,000 in April and then by another 10,000 in July, a total of £24,000.

The earnings range for qualifying points are also totally arbitrary with 5-10 points for each £5000 till the income limit of £39,999, then suddenly these are hiked by £10,000 for 5 points for the income range £40,000 to £49,999, and reduced once again to £5000 in the range £50-54999. This means that a substantial number of migrants falling in the approximate range of £30-50,000 income per annum will be greatly affected. Is it the case that the government already knows that this is the range most of PSWs are likely to fall under and hence a very secure source of extra taxes or the opportunity to force them to leave?

It seems clear that the real motivation of all successive UK governments, irrespective of the party politics, is extracting more money. Each extra requirement of £10,000 income means approximately £2-4,000 additional tax income per annum. Since April 2010 the consecutive governments have already ensured that this is achieved not just once but twice doubling the gain to the UK exchequer without any regard for law or fairness. And those who are unable to miraculously muster these extra incomes to meet the ever-changing and highly unrealistic and demanding conditions can be told to go back as UK has already pocketed the tuition fees at international rates, cheap labour and taxes they have contributed over the previous years. To many it is clearly a continuation of colonialism and never-ending colonial greed, albeit in a carefully hidden form. Scholars would also identify its stealthy operationalisation as an essential part of ‘Britishness’.

Skilled immigrants are a highly diverse lot with skills and knowledge in a range of subjects and fields. The image of a high flier banker who can perhaps stay immune to the vagaries of immigration rules does  not do justice to the, much neglected, HSMP immigrant, an immigrant who is neither entitled to nor ever uses public funds and instead provides the much-needed skills and high taxes to fund UK’s ‘overstretched’ infrastructure. These seemingly ‘bookkeeping’ changes are unjustly affecting many for whom the world could have been their oyster had they foreseen the volatile politics of immigration in Britain. And these rules and their constant ‘strengthening’ reveal not just the use of immigrants as pawns in party and racial politics but deeper claims of fairness the country claims globally. If UK cannot appreciate highly skilled people it has sought from across the globe, it can at least stop being hypocritical and luring them here under false pretext. No country has the right to pretend to invite skilled people, extract their skills and money, and then turn around to say it has changed its mind. It cannot be anyone’s prerogative, least of all of a nation that has gained immeasurably from the largest empire in recent history. Many words starting with the letter ‘c’ come to mind- cap, crafty, colonial.