Non-EU students face tough time after LLM

Unis are happy to take cash from foreign students, but job prospects are low. Joanne OConnor reports

As any visitor to Cambridge or Oxford will testify, the UKs top universities are buzzing with foreign students. Non-EU citizens make up the vast majority of those studying postgraduate law courses across UK institutions. A survey by Lawyer 2B has found that in postgraduate law degrees across the top UK universities, foreign students are outnumbering their UK counterparts by as much as two to one.

At Cambridge, Durham, Oxford and the London School of Economics (LSE), more than half of students studying the LLM or equivalent hail from outside the EU. From the universities point of view, it is not hard to see what the appeal is foreign students are a veritable cash cow.

Postgrad law degrees are fabulously cheap to run and universitiescandemand top prices for their courses. Cambridge,forexample, charges around 15,000 to foreign students for its year-long LLM degree. At Durham, home students are charged just under 3,000 for the LLM, while foreign students are charged close to 8,000 annually. The story is similar at other top institutions.

But despite the expense, and in spite of criticism from some quarters that postgraduate law courses offer little more than a production line approach to education, foreign students are continuing to flood into UK universities to study postgraduate law degrees. At Cambridge, more than half of those studying for the LLM are fee-paying foreign students. At the LSE, of the 237 students admitted to the LLM last year, 151, or 64 per cent, were foreign fee-paying students.

However, while UK universities are welcoming foreign students with open arms (and wallets) many foreign students are struggling to leverage their LLMs to secure UK work permits.

Graduaterecruitment heads at top law firms are quietly expressing concern at what they see as the failure of some universities to inform foreign students of the difficulty of obtaining work permits in the UK. One graduate recruitment officer said: When we go to careers fairs, were inundated with queries from foreign students about obtaining work permits through our firm. When we tell them of the difficulty of doing so, theyre often quite shocked. It can be the first time anyone tells them this. Some firms, including Lovells, have no trainees who had to obtain work permits.

Evershedsgraduate recruitment officer Anne Noble said: We certainly dont have a policy of avoiding recruiting non-EU citizens. Quite the opposite: being an international firm, we actively encourage it. However, Noble admits that it is largely for applicants to organise their own UK work permits.

Speaking about recruiting non-EU citizens, a Stephenson Harwood spokesperson said: Obviously there would be work permit implications. Weve recruited non-EU nationals in the past where were able to provide a legitimate business case to justify the hire.

However, at trainee level, providingalegitimate business case can be a hard task. Obviously its trickier at trainee level, so while were getting foreignstudents looking for training contracts, its more difficult for us to justify employing them instead of an EU national, said one graduate recruitment officer.

Increasingly, though, UK firms, and in particular those with a genuine global reach, are actively encouraging non-EU applicantstoapplyfor training contracts at their firms. Some firms, far from being put off by non-EU applicants, are encouraging them and assisting their training contract applicants in obtaining work permits.
ACliffordChance spokesperson said the firm regularly helps applicants obtain work permits. Each application we receive is screened on exactly the same competencies and each is reviewed on its ownmerits,saidthespokesperson. Clifford Chance admits that, as a global firm, it has little trouble obtaining work permits for non-EU citizens seeking work in the UK. For this Augusts intake, an impressive 20 per cent of its 2004 trainees are from non-EU states, although 15-20 per cent is more common.

At Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, of 199 trainees, 15 have work permits, while Slaughter and May has obtained work permits for five of its trainees.

For many firms, foreign applicants, particularly those from common law countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are a central part of a little-discussed churn and burn business model: work them hard for a couple of years and then watch them return home without having to offer partnership.

The globalisation of law firms has yet to translate fully into the UK legal personnel market. So, while LLM courses in the UK are awash with full fee-paying foreign students, many UK firms are yet to hire them. However, the signs are that, increasingly, law firms are actively encouragingapplications from non-EU citizens and are assisting applicants to obtain work permits.

For the many foreign students who pay thousands of pounds each year for a UK postgraduate law degrees believing it will guarantee them a job, the signs are not
as bleak as first thought. Obtainingthatcoveted training contract in the UK when you need a work permit could be as simple as just applying to the right firm.