British visa reform needed to keep attracting Hong Kong students after Brexit, says university president

Imperial College London president claims city’s students have enriched school’s community

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 3:34pm

Hong Kong students make a meaningful contribution to British society and worldwide, the president of a top London university has said, as she calls for visa reforms to make it easier for students to remain after graduation.

Her remarks came as uncertainty about the British academic and research scene – and fears of an unwelcoming atmosphere after the Brexit vote – loom over international students considering higher education in a country long known for its high quality in the sector.

Professor Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London, spoke of how Hong Kong students had enriched the university’s community.

“It is no surprise that so many of our Hong Kong students go on to achieve great things that have an impact in the UK, Hong Kong and worldwide,” she told the Post in an interview last month.

Gast cited the examples of maritime industry leader Sabrina Chao and apparel innovator Richard Lee, whom she said were an inspiration to the university.

Chao is the chairwoman and heiress to the Wah Kwong shipping empire, who took control of the company in 2013. Lee is renowned for taking TAL Apparel to great heights under his leadership, which produces one in every six dress shirts sold in the US.

Another alumnus, Catherine Chan, an orthopaedic surgeon at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, has pioneered the use of augmented reality for medical imaging during minimally invasive surgery, removing the need to look at multiple images, which can be a distraction.

Visa delays put Hong Kong students’ places at British universities in jeopardy

Imperial takes in around 250 Hong Kong students every year, a number Gast said had remained steady after the Brexit vote.

With the European Union and Britain still deadlocked over the union’s relationship with the country after it officially withdraws in 2019, higher education bodies in more than 20 European countries, including Britain, recently issued a statement warning the uncertainty is already causing problems. The associations called for urgent clarification on whether Britain would continue to be a part of European research after Brexit.

Prospective students are also concerned about an unwelcoming atmosphere after British Prime Minister Theresa May repeatedly rejected suggestions international students could be excluded from official migration figures. The British government is trying to meet its long-delayed target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands.

But Gast, who is also on an expert panel that advises Mayor of London Sadiq Khan on matters for the capital following the Brexit vote, warned against fearmongering, explaining that policies have not been changed.

“It is just as attractive to come to the UK [now compared with] before Brexit; some of that is just from an incorrect sense of what the UK is like,” she said.

However, the president acknowledged the administrative burdens international students might encounter and called for the country’s visa processes to be streamlined for these students, which the school greatly values.

Lesson to be learned from UK visa chaos hitting Hong Kong students

The graduate entrepreneur visa allows graduates to stay in Britain for a year after they leave university, with the possibility of another year extension if they have been endorsed as having a credible business idea. Currently, universities can grant about 20 such visas per year, which she said need to be increased.

Gast also suggested granting two years straight.

She also proposed extending a visa pilot scheme – which allows one-year master’s graduates at Imperial and three other universities to be granted an additional six months on their visa after their course ends – to other undergraduates and postgraduates.

The professor, a chemical engineer by training, also suggested increasing the time period of the doctorate extension scheme, which allows international PhD students to stay in Britain for one year after their studies, to three years for graduates from the so-called Stem subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.