The government’s new post-Brexit immigration plans have been criticised by student and staff representatives, who have warned that they would adversely affect colleges.
The point-based system would require applicants to have an offer of a “skilled” job with a sponsoring employer, and also need to be able to show they speak English. This would give them 50 points, with 70 points required to be able to enter the UK. The remaining points could be accumulated from being above a salary threshold of £23,040 (10 points) or £25,600 (20 points), or having a job in a shortage area or a PhD.
Immigrants from within and outside the EU would be treated the same after 31 December 2020. The Scottish government has called for a separate immigration system for Scotland.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "From 2021 the points-based immigration system will mean significant and profound change to how this country approaches skills. There is a risk that many employers will not be ready without concerted effort over the course of this year and beyond. It will require investment and collaborative working between employers, training organisations and government as the UK economy adapts to life outside the EU."
He added: "Colleges play a vital role in training and retraining both young people and adults to enter professions vulnerable to employment shortages, however, there will need to be a major boost to college budgets to meet these needs.
"This year will be critical in terms of planning and support to ensure colleges can adapt their staff and student processes to the new immigration rules. As freedom of movement ends between the UK and EU, the UK has the opportunity to show the world that post-Brexit Britain is a welcoming and open place for everyone to study, work and contribute to.”
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said the new immigration system will adversely affect colleges' ability to address skills gaps: “The college sector in Scotland will be disappointed by the UK government’s announcement on immigration and the new points-based system," she added. "It is a missed opportunity which does not contain provision for the return of a post-study work visa for college students and the new system will exacerbate skills shortages across many sectors in Scotland.
“The new immigration system will adversely impact on the ability of colleges to play their crucial role in addressing specific skills gaps, in areas such as health and social care, early years and childcare, and hospitality and tourism, to support the wider economy in Scotland, and neither is there consideration of regional variations within Scotland pertaining to salary thresholds which will also affect Scotland’s rural colleges.
“Colleges Scotland believes that the salary thresholds for working visas could have a severely detrimental impact on the future ability of the college sector to attract and retain support staff in Scotland. Overseas students greatly enrich the college sector and the new system is likely to diminish those positive impacts by making it harder for those students with industry-level qualifications and skills to secure settled status, develop their careers and contribute to Scotland’s inclusive economic growth.”
A University and College Union spokesperson said the union believed that the UK benefits "enormously from inward immigration, not just in terms of so-called highly skilled jobs but elsewhere too, particularly in education, health care and other public services".
"Many of those who end up contributing substantially to our society and economy start with very little and the message we are currently sending is one of a door being shut on all but the most privileged," the spokesperson said.
Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the NUS students’ union, said it was clear the government had not listened to the concerns of students in establishing this new points-based immigration system. “While the reinstatement of two-year post-study work visas was a positive step, by introducing financial thresholds for EU students it will close off access to the UK’s higher education system to all but the richest international students.”
She added: “All EU students must continue to have access to student finance if we are to meet the government’s own target of attracting 600,000 students to the UK by 2030.”
Ms Ibrahim said any minimum salary threshold “must be scrapped”. “Governments over the last decade have created precarious employment in our universities and colleges. Salary thresholds will prevent colleges and universities from recruiting the staff they need to educate our students and deny future students the opportunity to learn from those with international backgrounds.”
The new system would also prohibit the best international students from graduating into the entrepreneurial, charitable and creative industries, said Ms Ibrahim, as well as any public sector not deemed valuable by the government. “Already our student visas and other visa application systems are not fit for purpose; these plans will create further perverse outcomes for students and educational staff migrating to the UK alike.”