A cap on non-EU students is a cap on skills and growth

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Today, the Forty Group, a group of conservative MPs have published a pamphlet with a number of new ideas. Among them includes a cap on non-EU students studying in the UK.

Far from preventing non-EU students from studying in the UK, we should instead be encouraging them, which to date has not been the current government's remit - and which we have blogged on previously.

For example, the coalition government has already abolished the Tier 1 post-study work route, which allowed non-EU students to seek employment for two years before returning to their residing country.

This decision not only sends out a negative message that the UK is unwelcoming to potential non-EU students, but also restricts companies from employing the best quality, highly-skilled graduates.

Yes students can switch from their Tier 4 visa to a Tier 2, but this transition is often far from easy.

Firstly, a non-EU student has around four months after completing their course to switch to a Tier 2 visa. This means that they would already have needed to secure a job with an employer – but not any employer, an employer that is a sponsor (has a licence), and has acquired the certificate of sponsorship needed to recruit the student as a worker under Tier 2.

Now, for a larger company, that is already a sponsor, has an HR department and perhaps has some experience in engaging with the UK's migration system, then yes the process of switching from Tier 4 to Tier 2 might be do-able.

But what about the SME, without an HR Department, struggling to fill its vacancies so looking to recruit a graduate and happens to find the best candidate for the job is a non-EU student that has just finished his or her degree in engineering? How easy will they find navigating through the migration system to become a sponsor, apply for a certificate of sponsorship and recruit that specific graduate all in four months?

Let's be honest the UK's migration system is not known for being the most ‘business-friendly.' Anecdotal evidence from our members points to a number of problems employers have experienced when engaging with the UKBA – not receiving the number of certificate of sponsorships requested, delays in time on receiving visas, concerns over the effectiveness of the premium service and the accessibility of such services to SMEs, the time and resources needed to comply with the resident labour market test – need we go on?

But this is not just a process issue, it is also a skills issue. Manufacturers are already struggling to fill vacancies in their businesses, and as they focus on new products, processes and markets, their skills needs are increasing, and they are looking for employees with higher-level skills sets, and a mixed bag of skills-sets at that. Unfortuantely, these are not always easily found in the domestic labour market and so employers have to widen the net a little further.

When recruiting graduates, manufacturers are specifically looking to recruit science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates to fill their vacancies.

If we look at the UCAS Annual Data for 2012 Entry we can breakdown the numbers of students studying some of these STEM subjects by domicile. Whilst the majority of STEM students, as expected, are from the UK, significant proportions are also non-EU.

Proposals, such as that put forward by the 40 Group today, that restrict employers from recruiting the best possible talent will enviably damage business. Government must not get distracted by such 'ideas' and instead focus on growth; if businesses cannot find the skills they need, they cannot fulfil their growth ambitions.

So far from capping the number of non-EU students from studying in the UK, our pamphlet would recommend something a little bit different, which would include excluding international students from the UK's migration figures (and the target to reduce net migration to tens of thousands) to in fact attract more non-EU students to the UK to study and re-establishing the post-study work route so that when talented students come to graduate, they have the opportunity to market themselves to employers of all sizes, struggling to recruit the skills they desperately need.

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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