Half of international students surveyed said that the UK government did not make them feel welcome / Getty Images

 

Being an International student in the UK can be tough. For the Conservatives, the inclusion of international students in net migration targets was a quick fix to fulfil party promises. To international students, it was like slamming a door in our faces and hanging up a closed sign.

“Not welcome? But there aren’t any limits on the number of international students allowed to study in the UK.” That’s the message government keep promoting as they travel around the world encouraging international students to study here.

But the message is empty. What about Theresa May’s vows to crack down on international students, pledging to be tougher on us and kick us out of the country once we graduate. Welcoming? I don’t think so. Moves like this have had a devastating effect on the UK Higher Education brand, not to mention the economy.

As international students we have a choice about where we study, and harmful rhetoric pushes us to the UK’s competitors: the USA, Canada, Australia or even other European countries. For this reason, the government’s line is absurd.

So as the General election creeps closer, we have to act. There are around 450,000 international students in the UK (EU and non-EU) and students from within the Commonwealth or Irish Republic will be eligible to vote. 

This might seem like it leaves a lot of people without a vote and that’s true. But I prefer to think with my glass half full. In a room full of candidates debating their plans for immigration and education, international students from commonwealth countries do still have the potential to change the course of that election and those that can vote need to exercise their right more than ever to ensure the voice of all international students is heard and we don't face marginalising them as 'immigrants' for good.

Political candidates are convinced they’re going to solve our problems by just committing to remove international students from net migration targets. It’s a nice start and one I’ve campaigned for but we’re more interested in listening to what they have to say about the reform of post-study work visas. The scrapping of them in 2012 severely restricted the ability non-EU graduates have to find work experience in the UK. I know an international engineering student for example who’s on a countdown to secure a job within four months of completing his course in order to be able to stay.

That’s not all. The conditions are that the job will have to pay a minimum of £24,000 - a difficult feat for employers to achieve in terms of providing jobs that meet this minimum salary and one that’s put them off even trying. The result? The UK economy loses the talent and skills they have to offer.

If we lobby for politicians to address this and the 2014 Immigration Act, which has also been costly for the HE sector, we might actually get somewhere.

Universities UK discovered that international students like me have support from 75 per cent of the British public to stay after we graduate and I’ve met with British business owners pulling their hair out because they struggle to cover their skills shortage with British citizens alone. Clearly, commitments in political parties’ manifestos can be an attractive vote point for more than just international students.

Recently, decision-makers have begun to catch on to the importance of these issues. During the Times Higher HE hustings in May, Liam Byrne was acclaimed when he said Labour would remove international students from net migration targets whilst Julian Huppert could have not said more clear that he supports the reinstatement of the post-study work visa. Thank you, I hope your colleagues in the House of Commons start speaking as frankly as you did about the problems that affect us. Commonwealth students, take note when you vote.

I heard recently Lord Bilimoria say “changing your mind is a sign of intelligence”. Politicians should consider these wise words and start recognising the international student vote and our concerns because we will hold them to account in May.

Jose Joaquin Diaz de Aguilar Puiggari is the International Students Officer at the University of Sheffield's student union.

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