EU Vote Harmonises and Eases Visa Rules for non-EU Students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • New visa rules passed this month will open up expanded post-study work and residency options for non-EU students in Europe
  • The new Visa Directive also seeks to harmonise visa regulations across EU member states, and to improve mobility within Europe for non-EU students and researchers
  • Non-EU nationals will now be permitted to work at least 15 hours per week during the studies and to remain in Europe for at least nine months after their studies

The European Parliament has adopted new regulations designed to make study and research in the European Union more attractive for those coming from outside the EU. Members of Parliament approved amendments to the EU’s Visa Directive on 11 May 2016. The changes effectively merge two previously separate directives – one for students and another for researchers – in a bid to harmonise entry and residence rules.

Under the new Visa Directive:

  • Non-EU nationals can now stay for at least nine months after concluding their studies or research in order to look for a job or set up a business;
  • Non-EU students and researchers can move more easily within the EU, and no longer need to file a new visa application when moving from one EU country to another (rather, they need only to notify the country to which they are moving);
  • Researchers are entitled to bring their family members with them, and those family members are allowed to work during their time in Europe (this provision does not apply to students, however);
  • Non-EU students are entitled to work at least 15 hours per week during their studies.

A related item in the China Daily notes that there are more than 200,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in higher education in the EU. Roughly half of these students are in the UK, including Li Siyu, a finance major at Leicester University. “I am very happy to hear about [the new rules] as now I am seeking to apply for my second masters degree in London and this will allow me more chances to stay longer in UK after my graduation in 2017…I am crossing my fingers to see if the UK still stays in the EU after the referendum next month and as an EU member, it should observe the new rules.”

Leaving aside the question of the Brexit referendum for a moment, Li Siyu’s comments highlight both the attractiveness of the new regulations for students as well as the fact that the current policies of member states are uneven in terms of work rights during and after studies.

The European Students’ Union (ESU), meanwhile, has welcomed the new Visa Directive but points out that the long amending process from 2013 saw a number of revisions that weakened the final amendments. The ESU highlights in particular that the right to stay after studies was reduced by half (the European Parliament had proposed an 18-month post-study residency period, as opposed to the nine-month period approved this month). Similarly, the employment entitlement had been reduced to 15 hours per week from a proposed 20 hours per week, and students – unlike researchers – are not able to bring family members with them during their studies.

“The final document represents half of what we would have loved to see, as the proposals from the European Parliament were way more advanced in rights for non-EU students,” said ESU Chair Fernando Galan. “We hope that this Directive is only a first step in ensuring that Europe attracts more non-EU students to its campuses and in encouraging and increasing internationalisation.”

The Visa Directive (formally “Directive 2004/114”) is the legislative instrument that sets out the conditions under which non-EU nationals can enter the European Union to study, conduct research, volunteer, or take up internships or au-pair assignments.

The process of crafting the amendments passed this month dates back to 2013. It has been driven by a recognition that visa regulations have been implemented unevenly across the EU – thus the need to streamline and harmonise regulations among member states – but also by a need for Europe to more effectively compete for talent. “The aging of the EU population and a shortage of skills, coupled with competition from other attractive destinations for the talented and the highly skilled, have created a need for more effective EU policies in this area,” says an accompanying briefing note for this month’s parliamentary vote.

“I am glad that the EU recognises the value of attracting highly skilled people to come here and to entice them to stay by creating a harmonised European system applicable in all member states,” added Member of Parliament Cecilia Wikström. “This undoubtedly means that European universities will be able to strengthen their competitiveness on the global arena and become more attractive than ever to ambitious and highly-educated people from other countries.”

The adopted text for the new Visa Directive will come into force immediately upon its publication in the European Official Journal. From that point, EU member states will then have two years to adopt the new provisions in their corresponding national legislation.