On 23 May 2023, the UK government announced new restrictions to student visa routes, which if implemented will restrict the ability for international students to bring family members with them to the UK on a dependant visa except in limited cases. These new restrictions are likely to come into effect for students starting their studies in January 2024. The UK government intends to consult the sector before introducing the changes.

Why are the changes being introduced?

The latest net migration figures published in May 2023 showed net migration at record levels of around 606,000 in 2022. This is despite the fact that the UK government is committed to reducing net migration.

The statistics also show that there has been a significant increase in the number of dependants of overseas students (136,000 in 2022). This is a 750% increase since 2019. Restricting the ability of family members to accompany international students when coming to the UK is one way of the government reducing net migration.

Which dependants can currently come to the UK with an international student?

Generally, international students can bring dependants to the UK, if they are studying in the UK as:

  • a full-time student on a postgraduate level course that lasts 9 months or longer, or
  • a new government sponsored student on a course over 6 months, or
  • a doctoral extension scheme student.

Eligible dependants are generally speaking, partners and/or children (subject to them meeting the eligibility criteria). Dependants can work whilst in the UK.

What will the rule changes involve?

Once the rules change, international students will not be able to bring dependants to the UK with them except in limited cases where they will be undertaking post-graduate research. Further detail on the restrictions is likely to be published in due course.

This change may make the UK a less popular choice for some students who would want to bring their families with them.

Impact of the change on graduate route visas

Currently, an international student can apply for a graduate route visa if they have successfully completed their studies (usually a Batchelor's degree level or above). This allows them to work, or to look for work for a period of two or three years (depending on their degree) and they do not require sponsorship from an employer during their graduate route visa. See the UK government graduate route guidance for further details. 

At the moment, if an international student has been joined in the UK by their partner or children (as dependants on their student visa), they can also apply to stay as dependants on their graduate visa. However, dependants who were not already in the UK at the time of the student visa, can not apply to join someone who has a graduate route visa.

When the new changes come into force in January 2024, dependants will not be able to accompany international students during their student visa (and as a result will not be able to stay in the UK during the period of their graduate route visa). Although the graduate route visa rules are not changing, the changes will therefore impact the ability of family to be in the UK during the graduate visa period.

What do employers need to consider as a result of the changes?

The fact that most international students will not be able to bring dependants with them might result in a reduction in the number of international students coming to the UK (which might then impact recruitment for employers' graduate recruitment schemes).

In addition, for those international students who do come to the UK to study, they may prefer to be sponsored under the skilled worker route as soon as they graduate and obtain a job offer. The skilled worker visa allows individuals to be joined by family members whereas the graduate visa will not provide that option. This might result in the graduate visa becoming less popular. 

An added benefit of the skilled worker visa for international students who have completed their studies is that it is a route which counts towards permanent residence (whereas time spent in the graduate route does not). There are also significant cost savings for employers who do not have to pay the immigration skills charge if they sponsor someone who is switching from an international student visa into the skilled worker route.

Have any additional changes been announced?

The UK government has also announced an intention to prevent international students from switching out of the student route into work routes before their studies are complete. This is intended to avoid abuse of the student route.

In addition, the maintenance / financial requirements that apply to students and dependants are going to be reviewed.

More information

Further information on the changes can be found in this UK Government press release

You can also contact Elaine McIlroy or Erin McLafferty, who are immigration specialists working in Brodies employment and immigration team.