UK Migration Policy since the 2010 General Election

28 April 2015

Update: The figures in this piece referring to recent net migration have been updated following new figures published on 21 May.

  • The Conservative party target to reduce net migration from the 'hundreds of thousands' to the 'tens of thousands' has been reflected in stricter policies for admitting non-EU students, family members and workers.
  • Eligibility criteria for work visas have become more selective but overall numbers remain similar to 2010 levels.
  • British citizens and settled residents must now earn at least £18,600 if they want to bring their spouse to the UK, up from a post-tax income of £5,500 before July 2012. The exact number of family visa applications this policy has prevented is not known.
  • Student work rights have been reduced and more scrutiny introduced over colleges sponsoring international students. Over 800 colleges either had their license to sponsor non-EU students revoked or failed to reapply for sponsor status under the new rules. Visas issued to international students fell by more than 50,000 from 2010 to 2014.
  • Net migration was almost 200,000 above the 100,000 target when the last official statistics were released before the election, and are now even higher. Failure to meet the target was driven by both EU and non-EU migration. If EU net migration had remained at 2010 levels, the level would still have been more than double the target.

Policies governing inflows of students, workers, and family members from outside the EU have become stricter over the course of the parliament

During the 2010 General Election campaign, the Conservative Party pledged to bring 'net migration' down to the 'tens of thousands' by the end of Parliament in 2015. Net migration is the difference between the number of people leaving the UK to live abroad and the number entering to live here. This number stood at 263,000 in the year ending June 2011, covering the first year since the last election.

Migration to and from UK migobs

The entry numbers of European Economic Area (EEA) nationals cannot be restricted using immigration policy. Several immigration policy changes were introduced to make it more difficult for non-EU nationals to come to live in the UK in one of the three main categories: work, study, and family.

Eligibility criteria for work have become more selective but overall numbers remain similar to 2010 levels

A cap of 20,700 on employer-sponsored skilled migration (Tier 2 general) was introduced in April 2011 and has so far not been a binding constraint on work-based migration because the number of applications has been less than the limit. Minimum skill and language requirements were increased.

Two routes (Tier 1 — general and post study work) allowing skilled migrants and former international students to work in the UK without a specific job offer were closed, while new visas were introduced to admit smaller numbers of graduate entrepreneurs and people with 'exceptional talent'.

In 2010, approximately 15,500 new visas had been granted to main applicants coming from overseas in the two closed routes, post-study work and the points-based Tier 1 (general) route. Also in these routes in 2010, 54,000 extensions were granted to people already in the UK; this includes people who already held one of the two visas, as well as those switching into these categories from another type of visa.

By 2014 no new applicants could apply from overseas and numbers had fallen close to zero. Extension data are not yet available for 2014, but by 2013 post-study work extensions had fallen to under 600. There were still just under 20,400 Tier 1 (general) extensions in 2014, the vast majority of whom already held a Tier 1 (general) visa; from April 2015 the category will be closed to these applicants too.

However, declines in the number of visas granted in these two categories were offset by increases in others. In particular, the number of employer-sponsored skilled workers and people transferring within companies issued entry visas rose by approximately 12,800 from 2010 to 2014, from 39,100 to 51,900 main applicants.

British citizens and settled residents must now earn at least £18,600 if they want to bring their spouse to the UK. It is not possible to know the exact number of family visa applications this policy has prevented.

From 9 July 2012, British nationals applying to bring a non-EEA national partner to the UK are required to have a minimum annual income of £18,600, up from a post-tax income of £5,500 before July 2012. The required amount increases to £22,400 if they want to bring one child, and each extra child adds a further £2,400 to the requirement.

We do not know exactly how many spouses or children have been unable to come to the UK due to the income requirement. Between July 2013 and July 2014, the Home Office put on hold applications that would be refused solely on the basis of the income requirement pending a judicial decision about the lawfulness of the new rules.

The government reported that 4,000 individuals' applications were affected during this period of approximately one year. However, an unknown number of additional applicants will not have applied, knowing that they were ineligible.

Migration Observatory analysis of 2014 data found that 43% of British nationals who are employees do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse. This share is higher for groups that tend to have lower incomes, such as women (57% not eligible), young people in their twenties (60%) and ethnic minorities (51%).

EEA citizens living in the UK do not have to meet the income requirement if they want to bring in their non-EEA spouse. In 2013, approximately 17,600 residence permits were issued for non-EEA spouses of EEA citizens. The top nationalities of non-EEA spouses receiving the permits were India (12% of the total), Pakistan (10%), Nigeria (9%) and Brazil (9%).

Student work rights have been reduced and more scrutiny introduced over colleges sponsoring international students

The government promised in its original programme to address 'abuse of the immigration system' via student routes, particularly where non-EEA migrants were suspected of coming for work rather than study. New measures reduced the permitted working hours and raised language requirements for students at further education colleges.

In addition, all education providers sponsoring non-EEA students to come to the UK were required to apply for "highly trusted sponsor" status; to gain this status, providers must meet criteria that include a high rate of students completing courses and low rates of students having their visas refused.

Between 1 May 2010 and 7 October 2014, 836 education providers lost their licences, preventing them from bringing non-EEA students to the UK. Interpreting this number is not entirely straightforward. First, some licenses were revoked because institutions did not apply for highly trusted status.

This may be because institutions knew they did not meet the new criteria but it could also be for other reasons—for example, because they stopped operating or went bankrupt. Second, some providers on the list of organizations that had their license revoked during this period reapplied and had their license reinstated. Third, not all the colleges that lost their licenses will have closed. They can no longer sponsor non-EEA students but are not prevented from operating for domestic or EEA students.

Specific data on each of these categories are not available, but management data provided by the Home Office suggest that:

  • 223 licenses were revoked because the sponsor did not apply for highly trusted status by October 2011 (this does not include colleges that had not yet been licensed for at least 12 months at that point, and who therefore faced a later deadline).
  • A further 237 colleges either failed to meet a later deadline to apply for HTS, or applied and were refused.

By March 2015, 70 colleges with previously revoked licenses were currently licensed again under the same name (this does not include any who may have applied under a new name).

The number of student visas issued to non-EU nationals fell from just under 254,000 in 2010 to 193,000 in 2012, before rebounding slightly to 200,000 in 2014. A decline in applications for study was driven by lower applications to further education colleges (a decrease of 46,000 applications from 2010 to 2014) and English language schools (a 15,900 decrease). Applications to UK-based higher education institutions, by contrast, increased (by 25,400 over the same period).

Net migration was more than 200,000 above the 100,000 target when the last official statistics were released

According to the most recent available data, net migration was an estimated 318,000 people in 2014. This compares to 244,000 in the year ending June 2010. In particular:

  • Net migration of EU citizens more than doubled, from 72,000 in the year ending June 2010 to 178,000 in 2014.
  • Net migration of non-EU citizens was estimated at 196,000 in the year ending June 2010. It fell sharply in 2012 and 2013, but rebounded to 197,000 by the year ending September 2014. The initial decline was driven by lower numbers of students, and the rebound in 2014 was driven by higher levels of family and work-related migration.

Migration nationality migobs

Emigration of non-British citizens remained broadly stable over the course of the parliament, fluctuating between 175,000 and 210,000 in the four years to 2014.

If EU net migration had remained at 2010 levels, the level would still have been more than double the target

EU law does not allow the UK to restrict the numbers of EU citizens entering the UK. The 90,000 increase in EU net migration over the course of the parliament made it more difficult to meet the target of net immigration below 100,000 but was not the only reason. If EU net migration had not increased above the June 2010 level, total net migration would still have exceeded 200,000.

inflows by reason migbos

Migration Observatory analysis shows that in 2010 the number of recently arrived non-EEA migrant workers in the UK with high levels of education stood at 109,000. In 2013, that figure had decreased to 94,000.

More information:


This briefing was written by William Allen and Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Observatory in collaboration with Full Fact. Thanks to Bridget Anderson and an anonymous reviewer for comments. This work has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation but the content is the responsibility of the authors and of Full Fact, and not of the Nuffield Foundation. 

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