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What do Home Office plans to remove dependent student visas reveal about the invisibility of student-parents?

Sandra Clare, PhD Researcher at University of Manchester

Access to UK universities cannot be taken for granted; it has taken centuries for the working class, women and migrants from developing nations to be matriculated. My PhD study explores how ‘socially-just’ young-student-motherhood is; personal experiences are intertwined with inquiries of social, cultural and economic structures and herstorical legacies of women’s place in the academy and the home. As I heard of Home Office plans to remove dependent student visas, I was struck by the parallels between the ways young mothers and migrants are demonised and legislated against. The requirement doesn’t put a strain on the public purse (see the Universal Credit Regulations, 2013 / Immigration Rules) and the proposed change echoes the ongoing individualisation of parenting responsibility. The absence of student-parents in universities’ equality, participation and justice agendas reflects the ongoing privatisation of family life.

The government’s International Education Strategy in 2019 set out plans to meet the demands of a global higher education market by increasing the number of international students choosing to study in the UK. Part of the strategy focused on providing supportive and welcoming environments; however, from 2024 the removal of dependent student visas means parents will effectively be marginalised from the offer.

International students pay around £27,000 per academic year to study in the UK in addition to an annual contribution to the NHS of around £4,000; a charge paid again for each dependent. Hours available for paid employment are restricted but wages remain subject to tax and national insurance, further contributing to the NHS. I am no economist but know my colleagues who bring their children with them to study here from overseas contribute a great deal to the local and national economy; financing housing and living costs together with any leisure activities.

The current policy is a misguided and disproportionate addition to the government’s commitment to lower migration. Being asked to leave your children to receive an education is immoral and demonstrative of a systemic lack of understanding of, and respect for, family life. It will exclude or punish foreign parents and is bad news for a sector trying to disrupt colonial ideas about who is welcome in academia. I asked my postgraduate colleagues to join me in writing this blog. They would not. They are navigating life in a ‘hostile environment’ and will not risk speaking out. The below quotes are their words, which I feel duty bound to share.

‘Being asked to leave your children to receive an education is immoral and demonstrative of a systemic lack of understanding of, and respect for, family life.’

‘My take is this law is harsh and insensitive in every way; how does one explain that a developed country like the UK wants to eat its cake and still have it. They want the international student’s high tuition fee, but they don’t want their families? Any measure to separate children from their parents is detrimental and disruptive to family unity and the society.’ – Postgraduate Parent

Changes to visas will have a devastatingly gendered impact, affecting most mothers, and all single parents (around 90 per cent of whom are women (ONS, 2022)). Mothers’ choices are already restricted by virtue of their role in the family; decisions about which university to attend do not merely focus on academic interests but on infrastructure too. Meanwhile, those who make it here are capitulating to systems not designed with mothering in mind (Murtagh & Clare, 2022).

‘I can tell you this decision will affect women more than men especially from Arab backgrounds. Most countries won’t allow women to travel alone so their chance of pursuing studying will be affected massively. I just simply believe this is very unfair.’ – Postgraduate Parent

Following a review of experiences of student-parents (NUS Charity, 2009), recommendations were made for data to be gathered on students’ parental status. However, most UK universities still do not know how many of their students are raising children. I want to shine a torch on the invisibility of student-parents and challenge the marginalisation of next years’ potential student-parents. Through dialogue, activism and research I try to stimulate discussions about what higher education could and should be doing for all student-parents. There is much work to be done in making the duality of studying and parenting visible; eroding the chance for international student-parents to attend institutions will have the opposite effect.


Murtagh, L., & Clare, S. (2022). An exploration of the invisibility of student-parents in higher education. In ECER.

NUS Charity. (2009). Meet the parents: The experience of students with children in further and higher education.  

Office for National Statistics [ONS]. (2022). Families and households in the UK: 2021.