The UK government has issued updated guidelines to confirm that international students, including Indians, will remain eligible for post-study work rights at the end of their degree course even if they have to begin the 2020-21 academic year online from abroad given the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The UK Home Office said the Graduate Visa route, commonly referred to as a post-study work visa and designed for overseas students to be able to work or look for work for two years after completing their course, will apply to the 2020-21 intake as long as they are physically present in the UK by April 2021 to complete the final semester.
"Students will normally be expected to undertake their studies in the UK to be eligible for the Graduate route. However, if students are required to either continue their current studies or commence a new course by distance or blended learning due to COVID-19, they will still be eligible to switch into the Graduate route on a concessionary basis if they spent some time studying outside the UK," notes the Home Office guidance issued this week.
"Students will benefit from this concession if they enter the UK before 6 April 2021 and complete the final semester of their studies in the UK," it says.
A number of UK universities have indicated plans for a so-called blended teaching approach, incorporating online as well as some physical lessons, as the coronavirus lockdown and social distancing rules remain in place around the world.
University groups have been lobbying the UK government for steps to address the impact of the pandemic on the country's higher education sector, which had registered an impressive 136 per cent jump in Indian student visa numbers in the year ending March 2020.
"Indian students can now have confidence that even if they are unable to travel to the UK in the autumn to start their studies due to COVID-19, they will still be eligible to apply for the graduate immigration route if they are in the UK by April 2021," said Vivienne Stern, Director of the Universities UK International (UUKi), an organisation that represents 143 UK universities.
"The Graduate route allows students to remain in the UK for two years after graduation to work or look for work, and this concession means Indian students starting a UK course this autumn will be eligible to apply even if they need to start their UK course online due to COVID-19. We welcome this concession, as one of the areas of flexibility we asked of the government in our 'Kickstarting the Recovery' paper," she said.
The paper had highlighted that international students bring over 6.9 billion pounds income to UK universities in tuition fees and contribute over 26 billion pounds to the wider UK economy.
As an export sector of growing importance to the UK, higher education must be bolstered with measures such as concessions to ensure that online study amid the lockdown does not disqualify students from the Graduate Visa route, which is set for its launch for the 2020-21 cohort of university intakes.
A recent study by former UK Universities Minister Jo Johnson called for the two-year post-study offer to be doubled to four, a move he believes would prove particularly attractive to Indian students. UUKi, which has campaigned for the Graduate Visa for years, agreed that such a bold policy move would help the UK compete with other higher education destinations.
"We agree that extending the period to four years would make us really competitive with destinations like Australia, which offers between three and four years. A bold policy move like this would help the UK stand out to Indian students in an increasingly competitive field. Meanwhile prospective Indian students can be assured that the top priority for our universities is ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of all students and staff in the new academic year," added Ms Stern.