The new visa route that the government opened for Hongkongers with British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) status was one of the first proactive migration choices of post-Brexit Britain. Some 100,000 people have now secured the visa in the first year of the scheme, making it reasonable to think that several hundred thousand Hongkongers will come and contribute to our society over the next few years. The government’s own prediction is 350,000.
This would make the BN(O) visa scheme one of the largest organised migrations into the UK in history, second only to the 700,000 eastern Europeans who came to the UK after 2004 when borders across Europe opened up.
So it is absolutely critical that the scheme also comes with the most pro-active integration scheme we have seen to date. We must manage this latest wave of migration well, both for those coming to Britain and for the communities that they join. The politics of immigration are currently benign; but as inflation bites and a recession looms, things can change quickly. It is vital that the welcomers and the welcomed come together and a strong sense of connection is built.
Education has been one of the most important priorities for Hongkongers. Many parents are keen to see their children educated in a democratic society. The reputation of local schools has been a significant factor in their choice of where to live and settle and word of mouth has led them to Sutton in south-west London, Trafford and Warrington in the north-west and Nottingham in the Midlands.
However, some young people coming to Britain face an impediment to educational opportunity due to the complex current rules on university status.
Those who come on BN(O) visas will only have permanent and settled status in the UK once here for five years. This means that young people who come to Britain under the scheme would be required to pay international fees rather than home fees when they go to university.
It is counter-intuitive that a 15-year-old, who takes their GCSEs and A-levels at a British school, would not then be treated as a home student alongside their classmates when they apply to university in two or three years – and all the more so since their 11-year-old sibling would have acquired ‘home student’ status when at that stage of their career.
The consequences of this are a serious impediment to university education. Not only do these young people face much higher international student fees – up to £22,831 more per year – they are also ineligible for student loans under the current rules.
We believe this would unfairly penalise a cohort of young people from Hong Kong arriving to live in Britain. We want young arrivals from Hong Kong to thrive and become economically self-sufficient, not forgo university education. Our own surveys and recent rule changes, lead us to believe that the next wave of Hongkongers coming to the UK will be younger than the first. The problem is going to grow.
Fortunately, there is a straightforward way to address this. The Government has quickly agreed that young people coming from Ukraine under the Ukraine Family and Homes for Ukraine visa schemes should have home student status, matching the exceptions given to those with refugee status, and to those on the Afghan resettlement schemes. Doing the same for Hongkongers is the right principle for those coming to Britain under the BN(O) visa scheme, whose families have often fled Hong Kong due to the clampdown on civil and political rights. The costs of adding Hong Kongers will be paid back in greater self-sufficiency and higher tax rates, as university students enter the labour market.
That’s why we are calling on the UK government, and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to grant home student status to BN(O) visa holders resident in the UK. We believe this will have a wide appeal across all political perspectives, just as the new visa scheme itself has had. The higher education community – institutional leaders, academics and students – is speaking up for this change. It is the fairest way to treat young Hongkongers and also makes the most long-term economic sense. This simple adjustment can help unlock the extraordinary contribution young Hongkongers can make to their new home in the UK.
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