Migration Advisory Committee recommends keeping the Graduate route

The MAC review of the Graduate route finds no evidence of widespread abuse, and no impact on the integrity and quality of UK HE. The ball is back in the government's court, say David Kernohan and Michael Salmon

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The hurriedly commissioned and speedily delivered Rapid Review of the Graduate Route concludes there is no evidence of significant abuse of the Graduate route, that it broadly has achieved – and continues to achieve – the government’s own objectives, including those set out in the government’s international education strategy, and as such the core recommendation is that the visa route should remain in its current form.

It’s nearly the strongest possible steer that MAC could offer the government to leave well enough alone – the only area where it suggests concerted action is over the provision of “misleading information” to applicants (at the point of them entering the Student route) by some agents.

The committee calls for consideration of a mandatory recruitment agent registration system, arguing that there is insufficient evidence that the voluntary Agent Quality Framework will “prove effective against deliberate poor practice.” It also sets out a clear demand for the annual publication of provider level spending on agents and recruitment numbers, “as a starting point to improving disclosure.”

The report is clear that any further tightening of restrictions for the Graduate route would worsen the current drop in international applications – already affected by the new restrictions on taught students bringing dependants which came into force in January. Given what the report describes as a “failure to properly fund the sector” – not something, to be clear, that MAC was asked to examine – any government decision that could further reduce the UK’s appeal as a destination for international study would “need to explain how the financial consequences would be addressed.”

Questions and answers

The commissioning of this report posed five questions for the committee to consider:

1. Any evidence of abuse of the route including the route not being fit for purpose;

2. Who is using the route and from what universities they graduated;

3. Demographics and trends for students accessing a study visa and subsequently accessing the UK labour market by means of the Graduate route;

4. What individuals do during and after their time on the Graduate route and whether students who progress to the Graduate route are contributing to the economy;

5. Analysis of whether the Graduate route is undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system. This includes an understanding of how the Graduate route is or is not effectively controlling the quality of international students, such that it is genuinely supporting the UK to attract and retain “the brightest and best”, contributing to economic growth, and benefiting British higher education and soft power – in the context of the government’s wider International Education Strategy

MAC was not asked to comment on higher education funding, or on international agents. In both cases, it chose to do so.

Evidence of abuse

Abuse of the Graduate visa route would include, according to UK Visas and Immigration rules:

  • Claiming public funds
  • Becoming a professional sportsperson
  • Overstaying
  • The falsification of eligibility requirements by the student or sponsor
  • Undertaking a course of study that would qualify for the Student route

What is notably not on that list is what the MAC report describes as “permitted purposes that do not align with the government’s policy objectives.” The Graduate route rules are broadly drawn, and currently permit a lot of things that the government may not have been intending when setting it up. The government very much had STEM graduates moving into well paid scientific roles in mind – but graduates of all sorts go on to do all kinds of other things.

So you’ll find the bits on newly minted international graduates working for a low salary as a care worker elsewhere in the report (because this is not “abuse” of the route), and you’ll find nothing here on students or graduates claiming asylum (as their visa permits them to do) aside from the observation that “if the government is concerned by the rising number of such applications they should address this issue directly.”

Evidence of graduate or sponsor behaviour falling under each of the “abuse” categories is described, based on UKVI data and research evidence, as “very low.” This does not, however, necessarily mean that there is a very low incidence of abuse, just that there is no evidence to support a high incidence. So UKVI is not aware of the widespread falsification of application information (something at a very low – 0.8 per cent – refusal rate appears to back up).

Likewise, the Home Office was “unable to provide data” on the rate of overstaying, but given the short life-span of the visa route thus far you would not expect to see much evidence of graduates staying beyond the two (or three for PhD) year window. There was some early evidence that “a small number of individuals” were using “in time applications” where the experienced length of a visa goes beyond the limit while waiting for another visa application to be processed. This is considered abuse where the applicant already knows they do not fit the criteria for the visa or scheme they apply for.

It is not abuse of the visa route in the strict sense described above, but MAC does offer a warning about the exploitation of students, in particular by international recruitment agents. There are numerous quotes from a series of roundtables, highlighting students that have clearly been misled about the nature of their course, their payments and the cost of study, or other aspects of their lives as students.

Who and where?

The recent growth of former students on the graduate route is almost entirely (91 per cent in 2023) from postgraduate taught courses. More than half (54 per cent) are 26 and over, and the growth in older graduates has been in parallel with the growth in dependants. Dependant children as a share of all dependants grew by 13 percentage points between 2021 and 2023, though this is lower than the share of dependants for those on the Skilled Worker visa and the Student route. Since January 2024 dependant visas have only been available in association with research postgraduate courses, some two per cent of those accessing Graduate visas. The sector is already beginning to see a sharp decline in dependant visas, and in Student and Graduate visa applications more generally.

Some 40 per cent of Graduate visas are held by former students from India, with a further 35 per cent hailing from Nigeria, China, Pakistan and the United States. In comparison with student visa numbers, Indian nationals are over-represented on the Graduate route, while Nigerian nationals are more likely to have dependants, nd these dependants are more likely to be children.

The Graduate route tends to be used by international postgraduates who studied at lower ranked universities, and 66 per cent of all Graduate visas are held by graduates who studied outside the Russell Group (exactly the same kinds of institutions that have driven the recent growth in Student visa applications). The report does note that:

the ranking of the university is an imperfect proxy for the quality of international students, whose choices will depend on many factors including their financial constraints. For example, a student could be considered among the ‘brightest and best’ but cannot afford to pay the higher tuition fees associated with many higher-ranking universities.

In general (and much like home graduates) Graduate route visa holders are more likely to be found in the London area, and there is some evidence that graduates move to London to seek work, though the data is imperfect. As to the poorly defined “brightest and best” language, MAC notes that the Home Office does not collect data on the academic achievements of those who move to Graduate visas, simply a binary “complete/not complete” value. We also get the pointed observation that no government ministers or officials that MAC spoke to could give a clear definition of what “brightest and best” means in practice.

Demographics and trends, and what graduates do

As we’ve already noted on Wonkhe, the suggestion that half of those on the Graduate route who switched into the Skilled Worker route work in the care sector is incorrect. The commissioning letter repeated the falsehood, which is called out in the report.

This section contains the most notable data innovation thus far, a LEO-style linked data set drawing Home Office records together with HMRC salary and job information from the tax system. Though obviously limited to those in paid employment (some 79 per cent paying tax via PAYE or self-assessment) this gives us decent data on what those in employment are doing. The Graduate route, however, is not restricted to paid work – and there is correspondingly little information on what the other 21 per cent are doing.

That 79 per cent is not the employment rate – it simply means that people who are or have been on the Graduate route have, at some point, earned money and paid tax on it. It could include work carried out while on a Student visa, or after transferring to a Skilled Worker visa. The best estimate of the employment rate – those who had work for at least one month in the year after obtaining their Graduate visa – is 68 per cent, but this would not include those who had started work after the first year, or exclude those who had left the country. It is not possible to estimate this latter number as the Home Office does not keep records.

Given those hefty caveats, we are fairly sure that most on the Graduate visa worked all 12 months of their first year (more than 25 per cent), and that most (more than 60 per cent) worked in their first month of that year. The more work someone does during that year, the more likely they are to be earning decent money.

15 months after graduation earnings are lower on average than those of home graduates at c £21,000 as compared to c £26,000. For the Graduate route, this is higher than median earnings for all workers aged 22 to 26, and higher than the £18,000 assumed in the Graduate route impact assessment. The report says that the difference from home graduates could be explained by a lack of experience in the UK employment market, and a lack of understanding of the route among employers.

Beyond the visa and into the economy

On the Graduate route you are able to apply to switch to another visa – this might be a working visa (usually the Skilled Worker visa, but also stuff like the Global Talent route), a Student visa if you decide to do a masters’ or doctoral course, or staying as someone’s dependant. You could do this at any time during the two or three years available.

The Home Office has data on what people who started on the Graduate route did between July and December 2021 – the only group eligible for the visa that could also have seen it expire. Half of this group switched to a work or student visa at some point (81 per cent of these moving to the Skilled Worker visa). There’s no data on switching to the other routes.

Former Student visa holders who enter the Graduate route appear to be better at securing professional graduate roles (using the OfS definition) when they move to the Skilled Worker route than their peers who might have gone straight there. In contrast 49 per cent of those who switch directly from Student visas to Skilled Worker visas become care workers, suggesting that the Graduate route is actually helping graduates get jobs that use the skills and knowledge they have learned.

However, 20 per cent of those entering the Skilled Worker route from the Graduate route work in the care sector – a higher proportion than comparable home graduates, and a destination that has not traditionally been seen as suitable for graduates. MAC rather spikily notes:

if the government is concerned about this phenomenon, the problem lies in the care sector rather than the international study sector. Former students, and other migrants, do care work in the UK because this work is eligible for the Skilled Worker route and there is high demand for care workers at the low salary threshold.

The problem of high worker demand and low pay in care work was a theme of MAC’s 2023 annual report – it notes that even if former students are working below their experience and training in the care sector, they may be less vulnerable to exploitation than other migrants in these roles.

In the main, Graduate visa holders are likely to have a net positive fiscal impact on the UK – they contribute tax while working, have low healthcare costs, no recourse to public funds, and pay an annual (£1,035) Immigration Health Surcharge. Taking the median annual income of a working individual (£21,000 annually), someone on a Graduate visa would pay £1,700 in income tax and £700 in national insurance contributions. This is based on very broad estimates, and given the timescale involved does not include an assessment of the fiscal impact of dependants or those not working, though child dependants in full time state education might be fiscally negative, although, of course, numbers are already dropping sharply following the January 2024 changes.

Again, the limited time and data available mean MAC has not been able to look at the impact of the graduate route on housing in any depth – though there are warnings about the need to consider the availability of both student and general housing in the areas where visa holders are likely to settle. It notes work in Sheffield involving the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, and Sheffield Council as an example of best practice here.

Integrity and quality

The final question posed by the government to MAC is the longest, and the hardest to answer. To know whether the Graduate route is “undermining” the “integrity and quality” of the UK higher education would require a detailed and nuanced idea of what higher education is actually for. That’s not quite as flippant as it sounds – universities do lots of things, and the Graduate route will have an impact on a subset of these. For instance, there’s a general sense that international students add financial and cultural value to the UK, and that international education itself is an immensely valuable part of the economy – used, among other things, to subsidise all the things that universities do (teaching home students, conducting research) that generally do not make money.

The Graduate route may play a role in driving international recruitment (there is Home Office data that suggests 73 per cent of Graduate visa holders were influenced by the availability of the route), and other data suggests that 53 per cent of graduates prefer to stay in the country they studied in after graduation. Anything that makes this simpler tends to be popular – though this differs based on nationality (Chinese students prioritise teaching quality, Nigerian students emphasise the importance of graduate employment). Many countries offer post-study work visa routes with variable conditions – the trend internationally is a tightening of rules in recent years. There’s some evidence that the way this has played out in the UK is starting to have an impact on international applications.

Over the net

The MAC review sticks tight to its brief. It does what it can with the data that exists, and avoids speculating or shifting focus. This approach may create a headache if, as is speculated, government ministers had hoped to see either hard evidence of problems or a sufficient amount of smoke for it to be able to intuit the existence of fire. The report delivers neither.

There is, however, a wider prescription for the Home Office that can be surfaced from the review and its careful dissecting of two years of policy churn.

If the government’s aim is to recruit the “brightest and best”, then it needs a clear definition of what that means, and data to back it up, hence a recommendation on degree class outcomes being collected. If it wants to reduce net migration, it needs to both make and publish impact assessments of earlier policy shifts, so that it can work off credible assumptions of the changes that are already baked in. If it wants to look at students claiming asylum, then it should conduct a proper investigation, rather than leaking data to the Mail and pivoting to the next controversy. If it wants to reduce international student numbers, it should be clear about how this will affect the sustainability of UK higher education and the government’s own levelling up agenda. There is even a steer to government to do more to support international students using the Graduate route to find good quality work, and raise awareness of the conditions of  the route among employers.

Whether government will issue a suitably studied response is the next question for the sector. Next week’s Office for National Statistics data will bring a headline figure for net migration in 2023, a number which UK politics seems to have lost the ability to contextualise over the last few bi-annual releases, opening itself up instead to a furious buffeting from the press.

In November 2022, the corresponding ONS publication was swiftly followed by the announcement that the government was considering restricting dependants and generally gunning for “low quality” degrees. For May 2023, the Conservatives got ahead of the data by unveiling dependant restrictions two days prior – as well as a ban on switching before course completion and, you might remember, a planned crackdown on “unscrupulous” agents (which must be really thoroughly planned by now). Last November, recently sacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman marked the stats by tweeting that she had been blocked from scrapping the Graduate route – and shortly after this her replacement James Cleverly announced the MAC review, as well as an enormous rise to salary thresholds for work visas.

The Migration Advisory Committee’s broadly clean bill of health for current post-study work arrangements will come as a relief to the higher education sector. The evidence for yet more upheaval just isn’t there, whether through lack of good data, the route’s relative newness, or the inherent subjectivity in judging what “good” looks like. If a decision is to be made, it won’t be backed up by expert analysis. This may or may not be enough.

One response to “Migration Advisory Committee recommends keeping the Graduate route

  1. It’s interesting to note that 63% of people on the Graduate Visa stay on other visas after it expires, with 46% of all people on the Graduate Visa switching to the Skilled Worker visa. This means a few things:

    1. The Graduate Visa is a successful at getting people into skilled work.
    2. Former international students seem to make up roughly a third of skilled worker visa grants.
    3. Removing international students from net migration figures would be dishonest as international students no longer ‘nearly all leave anyway’.
    4. This does explain why net migration figures are a lot higher than anticipated.

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