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Flicking the Work Rights switch

What impacts student destination choice?

The Oxford Economics report on international student mobility, specifically excludes the impact of government policy. One area of policy, however, has a clear impact on international students’ choice of destination: whether they have the right to work in the country in which they study.

Work Rights for all students across all educational sectors – including Vocational Training and Language Training – was a policy first introduced by Australia in the 1980s when it took the decision to enter the international student market and compete with the two major players in the English-Speaking World: the US and UK.

The Australian government claimed that giving students work rights would enable students, who couldn’t otherwise afford to, the chance to go to Australian universities. Now, all English-speaking destinations, except the US, give work rights to undergraduate students. The US allows them only to work at on-campus jobs, though graduate students are often given the opportunity to do some paid teaching or research, and all graduates can apply for a Post Study Work Permit.

Most English-speaking countries also allow graduate students to bring dependents and, apart from in the US, they are generally also given work rights.

For students from most countries – especially for those intending to stay for more than a few months – work rights are a key issue in their choice of destination in an era where a bout of high inflation has significantly increased the cost of living.

This can be seen in the language school sector where the number of long stay students in all provider countries have recovered, with the exception of the US and the UK; the only two countries which do not allow long stay language students to work. The impact in the UK, where Brexit has, for the first time, deprived EU citizens of the right to work when they study, full recovery to pre-pandemic levels is unlikely.

The most potent lever a government has to increase, or reduce, the number of international students is to introduce or remove a category of work rights. In 2019, the UK re-introduced post study work rights and numbers rocketed, particularly from Commonwealth countries. Facing high immigration figures, mostly caused by an increase in work visas, it took away the right of graduate students to bring their dependents and thus reduced the ability of those students to cover their costs of living. Meanwhile, Canada removed the right of dependents of undergraduates to work.

The results in both countries were the same: the number of applications for student visas for lower middle income countries plummeted. Work rights like exchange rates can cause a large and immediate shift in student inflows.

Image courtesy of Library
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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