Post-study work visas – what we really know

We’ve been waiting for action to address the post-study status of international students in the UK since 2012.

Today’s announcement suggests a small victory has been won. The sector has welcomed the plans to re-introduce a route to two years of post-graduation work, but we’re all still waiting for the detail.

And there’s not much around. It seems than rather than just extending student visas to allow all those completing a course to work in the UK for two years afterward (as happens in Canada), what amounts to a new visa has been created. International graduates (who meet certain conditions) will be able to apply for a “Graduate Route” that allows them two years to find a skilled job (one earning over £30,000) – at which point they become eligible to apply to Tier 2 via the “skilled work route”.

If you are thinking about the Tier 1 (post-study work) visa that was closed in 2012, the similarities are many. It’s difficult to say whether this is just a relaunch of the former route because so few details are available.

If you enjoy applying for a visa…

This means that an international student who applies to and completes a course and then finds a skilled UK job may have to apply to the Home Office three times – once for a Tier 4 student visa, once for the new Graduate route (we’ve confirmed with DfE that a “light touch” application process will apply, and then once to move to Tier 2 (skilled work).

There’s no information regarding whether the existing four months (six in a limited pilot scheme) available to all international students after completing their course will count as part of the new two years that may be on offer.

Those seeking the proposed “graduate route” will need to successfully complete a course (undergraduate or above) at a provider with a track record of compliance with immigration checks and other rules. Recall that back in 2017 Alex Bols noted that smaller providers may be disproportionately at risk of seeing 10 per cent of their applicants refused visas (often through no fault of the institution), and thus losing Tier 4 status. This loss, even if later overturned, would prevent all of their current and future students from accessing the graduate route.

The graduate route is only available to those holding a Tier 4 visa at the point the route is introduced – so this opportunity does not to those who will complete their course and see their Tier 4 visa end before the new rules are introduced. We’ve been told that universities are able to recruit on the basis that students starting in the 2020-21 academic year will benefit from this proposed opportunity.

A step on a long road

Though the announcement has been widely welcomed (the Sun being a notable exception), the government still needs to implement the decision. In normal times this would be a formality, but these are not normal times. Changes to immigration rules, which would include this announcement alongside the already trailed imposition of an Australian-style points system would be expected to be enacted in a bill announced in the Queen’s Speech in October, but there is very little likelihood of a government programme of legislation being passed.

We can be encouraged by cross-party support for the plans, and perhaps hope that some solution can be found to make this happen sooner rather than later.

But I was slightly alarmed to note that there is a government news story and also a (published later) press release describing these plans, with only the former mentioning the two year duration. Are things shifting? Watch this space.

Taking statements

There are statements in support of the idea from pretty much all of the remaining Cabinet members. My favourite is from Home Secretary Priti Patel:

“The new Graduate Route will mean talented international students, whether in science and maths or technology and engineering, can study in the UK and then gain valuable work experience as they go on to build successful careers.”

To be clear, the route will apply for all students, not just those studying STEM subjects. But this pointed choice of examples will give the UK’s world-leading conservatoires and specialist providers cause to think.

Surprisingly, Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock did not mention the clear benefit for the NHS that the availability of a larger pool of international graduates of subjects like nursing, midwifery, or biosciences will bring to staff recruitment.

You may also be wondering why the Prime Minister is announcing this change. And thereby hangs a tale. It was understood that Jo Johnson, long an advocate of improving the UK offer for international students, was to have announced these plans at the 2019 Universities UK conference. With Johnson’s resignation, Gavin Williamson was expecting to lead on the announcement – only to find it taken over by the Prime Minister at late notice.

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