The government announced a review into the two-year visa option for international graduates to “prevent abuse” and “protect the integrity and quality of the UK’s outstanding higher education sector” in early December.
The Migration Advisory Committee is expected to continue the review of the route into ‘late 2024’, after first focusing on an Immigration Salary List review in the first quarter of the year.
Key stakeholders representing the country’s sector have been voicing concerns that the government could be looking to end the route after facing pressure around high net migration figures.
Only this week, London Higher’s CEO Diana Beech spoke of the importance of maintaining the Graduate visa route, while UKCISA has launched a questionnaire on impact of the Graduate route review on current students (running until January 15).
Speaking in the House of Commons on January 10, Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Richard Foord (who was previously acting head of global partnerships at the University of Exeter), urged government to confirm it will not end the visa.
“This year, the Migration Advisory Committee will review the graduate immigration route,” he said.
“International research students who are currently doing PhDs in the UK are attracted to coming here because of the ability to stay on and work after completing their PhD. Will the minister engage with the Home Office to confirm that research students who arrive in the UK this year will continue to be entitled to a period of post-study work?”
Answering for the government, the minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Andrew Griffith, said that both he and his colleagues “regularly meet Home Office colleagues” but did not confirm that the government would maintain the post-study work opportunity.
This is despite the parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office in the House of Lords, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, declaring on November 29 last year that “there are no plans to affect the student graduate route”, after being quizzed in the chamber by Lord Jo Johnson.
The statement was made days before the Home Secretary James Cleverly announced that the Migration Advisory Committee would review the graduate route.
On December 5, Lord Sharpe reminded that the Conservative 2019 manifesto committed to establishing the graduate route.
“More than 100,000 people last year to September 2023 were issued visas for the graduate route. We have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review this route to ensure that it is fit for purpose and prevent abuse, protecting the quality and integrity of UK higher education,” he said.
“We have reconfirmed our intention to attract the best and brightest.”
However could the government roll back the Graduate Route? In private, stakeholders are concerned that it could after many saw the maintaining of the visa as one of the sector’s biggest wins while the former occupant of Cleverly’s office – Suella Braverman – was in cabinet.
Writing this week in HEPI, CEO of Study Group, Ian Crichton, reiterated that for its students, the opportunity to stay in their study destination for a period of post-study work is “critical”.
It offers international graduates the opportunity to “cement their understanding and experience, enhance their careers and mitigate the costs of study”, he said.
While it is right that the government stamps out abuse of the system – especially those “organisations which deliberately betray trust in rigorous compliance” – the national move to recruit students from more countries beyond China, the promise of post-study work has become “a crucial factor in a family investment decision”.
“Stopping education being used as a back door for mass immigration, yes; but let us also ensure a warm welcome for the talented young people who make our country and world a better place,” he concluded.
Crichton joins a host of stakeholders that have been calling for the UK government to confirm that the Graduate Route remains in place. Prospective students, as well as the sector at large, are seeking assurance from the country’s top brass.
“What students and universities now need is stability and certainty”
On December 13, chief executive of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern MBE, reminded that reintroducing a competitive post-study work offer was clear in the UK’s 2019 International Education Strategy to allow the UK to contend in a global market.
The Migration Advisory Committee has itself previously recognised that the Graduate route has been a “resounding success”, she emphasised.
However, MAC also has noted that its concern that the graduate visa would incentivise demand for short master’s degrees due to its temporary work right rather than “primarily on the value of qualification”.
“[That concern] may well be borne out in 53 the trends that we have observed,” it said in its 2023 annual report.
“The Graduate route visa is central to both government and sector strategies to diversify the pipeline for international student recruitment and help distribute the benefits of international students across the full diversity of the UK’s excellent universities,” Stern added.
“What students and universities now need is stability and certainty. Government must continue to reassure prospective international students that the UK remains open, and that the Graduate route is here to stay.”
Weeks later, director of UUKi, Jamie Arrowsmith, wrote that UK universities were concerned to see government returning to an issue that was believed to be settled in the middle of 2023.
“While the review of the graduate route is said to be focused on ‘abuse’, the minister declined to confirm that there would be no further changes on visa policy, noting only that immigration matters were for the Home Office,” he said.
With high levels of international students subsidising domestic students fees after “conscious policy decisions made by successive governments”, the UK needs to give confidence to prospective international students that “post-study opportunities being promised today will still be in place when they graduate”.
“This is especially true for students from emerging economies, for whom work opportunities are fundamental to justifying the investment required for an international experience,” he said.
According to Sanam Arora, founding chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union, the ability to access post-study work is “one of the most important requirements of Indian students, not least because international work experience offers them a chance to pay back some of the expensive loans they often take out to pursue UK study in the first place”.
“Any move now to axe or make the graduate route less attractive would risk tipping many universities into deficit, reduce the country’s soft power and hit an export sector that contributes more than £41bn a year to the economy,” Jo Johnson said in an op-ed for the Financial Times.
During the two-year visa students cannot claim benefits and the time does not count towards settlement, the former universities minister, a visiting professor at King’s College London and chair of FutureLearn, noted.
Only those with an eligible job with a Home Office-approved employer can stay for a further five years if they switch to an alternative skilled worker visa.
The post-study work regime is not a pre-work study regime, he said.
“Any review of the graduate route needs to focus narrowly on abuses rather than on the policy itself. The government should use it to help the sector adopt three sensible measures that institutions on their own may be reluctant to take for fear of putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.”
The PIE is launching a campaign calling on the government to support the UK Graduate Visa, which featured in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2019. If you are interested in writing in support of the visa route, get in touch here.