Government bid to curb number of migrants is penalising the foreign talent the country needs to help drive recovery, business leaders say.
UK 'closing the door' on foreign students
LONDON // When He Ying Li arrived in the United Kingdom to study at one of the world's most illustrious universities, she could barely contain her excitement.
But that enthusiasm dissipated as she waited in the pouring rain outside a south London police station. As a Chinese immigrant, she had been given a week to register with the authorities.
"I got up at 4am to try to beat the queue, but I still had to wait for seven hours, standing in the rain," said the 23-year-old, who arrived in the UK last month to study media and communications at the London School of Economics (LSE).
Following chaotic scenes at police stations across the country, the government relaxed the registration rules earlier this month. In future, students will have until the end of December to register with police and can do it through their university.
But bigger challenges are in store for Ms Li and other talented young students who dreamed of finding work in the UK after their studies.
Tighter immigration controls introduced in April dictate that foreign students now have only four months, rather than two years, to find a permanent job after their course ends.
"I have to apply in January to start getting interviews by next September. By then, time will be running out," said Ms Li, who has never been out of China before. "I have just arrived, I'm still getting used to London and improving my English and trying to cope with the huge amount of work for the course. I'm not prepared for job interviews yet."
That comes on top of new rules blocking foreign students from part-time work and demanding better standards of English.
"Students from third-world countries can't support themselves without a job." said Ayman Khan, a 21-year-old statistics student from Pakistan. "Friends back home who wanted to come are very worried."
There has also been heavy criticism of a Home Office decision in August to block London Metropolitan University from accepting this year's intake of foreign students, including those midway through their course. The Home Office accused it of failing to monitor the activities of its students, although the ruling has been delayed by a legal challenge.
Many believe this tougher approach is scaring off talented foreigners and threatening the UK's standing as the second-most popular destination, after the United States, for international students.
"It's a continuous drip-feed of negative messaging from the government that is making international students and parents think twice about sending their children to UK universities," said James Pitman, managing director for Study Group, which runs courses to prepare foreign students for life in Britain.
"Some of our partner universities are already reporting a drop of up to 40 per cent in applications from South Asia."
Targeting non-EU students is a sign of desperation in the coalition government led by David Cameron, as it resolutely fails to cut immigration to its promised level of under 100,000 by 2015. Last year's figures showed net migration increased to a record high of 252,000.
UK business and education leaders see the government's approach as deeply counterproductive. The department for business, innovation and skills says international students generate more than £2 billion (Dh11.8bn) in fees and as much as £6bn more in indirect benefits.
That money is increasingly shifting to countries like Canada and Australia, which have thrown open their doors to bright youngsters.
"It is not just economic benefits that international students bring, but tremendous cultural richness to our campuses," Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK told a parliamentary committee this year. "They go back as ambassadors for the country and the effect that has is immeasurable and invaluable."
There are fears that tougher rules could discourage more serious, career-minded students.
"People come here for the whole package - they want to study here, but also to network and look for jobs," said Felicity Tan, a 25-year-old policy and communications student at LSE from the Philippines. "Now people feel there is no point networking since the government puts up all these barriers to getting a job. Instead, you'll just get more and more rich kids who just come here to party and go home."
Business leaders are also angry. London First, a financial industry lobby group, has campaigned strongly against the onerous bureaucracy and strict targets put in the way of employing international talent. The Economist last week described the government's approach to immigration as its "barmiest policy" on its front page.
Even the British public is opposed. Although three-quarters want cuts to overall immigration, a majority also see foreign students and skilled workers as an asset that should not be discouraged.
Last month, a group of ministers successfully lobbied to have foreign students presented separately in total immigration figures, but unlike the US, they will still be counted as long-term migrants rather than temporary residents.
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "The government does not consider it appropriate to deviate from the internationally agreed definition of a migrant, not least because students access services like health, transport and housing in the same way as someone on a work or family visa."