The Graduate route is about human stories, not just numbers

International students seem to get thrust into the policy spotlight every time the net migration figures arrive. But for Jim Campbell and Helen Atkinson, students’ and graduates’ voices should be at the centre of the conversation

Jim Campbell is Assistant Director of the Careers Centre at St Andrews, and a member of the AGCAS International Task Group

Helen Atkinson is Career Development and Academic Support Manager at the University of Sunderland, and is Co-Chair of the AGCAS International Task Group

Shortly after the Graduate route visa was introduced in 2021, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) launched a research project supported by the UPP Foundation to learn more about the lived experiences of international graduates seeking UK employment in this new visa landscape.

The research consisted of a survey, a series of focus groups and the collection of case studies, with 50 now published on the UKCISA website. With the discontinuation of follow-up telephone calling for international graduates as part of the Graduate Outcomes survey, our research provided much needed insight into the UK job market experiences of that first cohort of Graduate route visa holders.

Our research report revealed that most of our survey respondents had successfully secured employment (60 per cent were working full-time, seven per cent part-time) and nearly three-quarters of those on a Graduate route visa were in a graduate-level role.

Here, we want to share insights from the case studies and consider what these first-hand accounts reveal about the impact of the Graduate route visa and its ongoing value to graduates, employers, universities and policymakers.

Graduate experiences

A recent IDP Connect report found that 57 per cent of respondents who chose to study in the UK stated that the availability of the Graduate route was either the main or influencing factor in their decision. Our case studies confirm the worth of the Graduate route to those wishing to gain post-study employment in the UK:

I valued having time and flexibility while applying to roles [USA]

The visa has made it possible to gather more knowledge working over here [Nigeria]

One of the most heartening elements of the case studies is the advice international graduates provide to those following in their footsteps. Despite the struggles and expense, most of the graduates who took part in our research have greatly benefited from the Graduate route. Graduates encouraged those following them to be resilient, rely on their networks to keep them going and to not give up. One graduate closed by saying “take the risk, it’s worth it” (India).

Since the research findings were published, there has been a significant tightening of regulations which will restrict international taught postgraduates from bringing dependents to the UK – along with increases to visa costs and the NHS immigration health surcharge.

High costs are a frequent refrain throughout the case studies, which were provided in spring 2022 before the cost-of-living crisis really started to bite.

The cost of the visa ended up being substantial… I understand that certain fees are necessary to process the visa and provide healthcare, but it’s difficult for students to have such funds available [USA]

The cost is very high compared to other countries providing similar visas [Pakistan]

Increasing already large expenses for international students increases the likelihood that talented scholars will take their investment to competitor higher education markets.

The introduction of the Graduate route visa helped the UK Government to meet the recruitment target set out in its International Education Strategy and also helped the country’s higher education sector to become more competitive against international education rivals. It follows then that any plans to remove the visa route somewhere down the line would risk squandering all of those gains.

Aside from the financial dividends delivered by international students, the recent study by the International Higher Education Commission is a reminder of the internationalisation at home value they bring too. International student presence on campus ensures cultural and linguistic diversity and introduces opportunities to home students for cross-cultural exchanges both within and beyond the curriculum.

The employer perspective

The Institute of Student Employers’ 2023 Student Recruitment Survey underscores the challenges graduate recruiters face in filling IT/digital, engineering and finance roles, which could be filled by international graduate talent.

However, the picture created by the bank of case studies suggests that employers did not always recognise the opportunities offered by the Graduate Route visa. There were numerous accounts of graduates having to introduce the new visa to recruiters during the selection process.

I had some interviews and they asked me to describe what exactly the post-study work visa is. It seemed that they were not that familiar with this visa [South Korea]

There is a huge resistance to hiring people who need a visa…Employers are not educated on the process and are daunted by it heavily [Pakistan]

We also encountered several reports of employer reticence:

Many recruiters told me I filled the “profile” they were looking for but asked me to “fix” my migration situation before applying for a job. [Mexico]

Supporting employers

In July 2023, the APPG for International Students called on the government to publicly commit to maintaining the Graduate route visa, and for the government and the higher education sector to collaboratively communicate its benefits to employers.

This work is vital. Employers refusing to interview or hire international graduates, seen throughout our case studies, are losing out on bringing global perspectives to their organisations (and may also be risking illegal recruitment practices).

The sector is already taking action to support employers. In September 2023, British Universities International Liaison Association (BUILA), on behalf of the International Student Employability Group (ISEG) released a toolkit of resources to promote the benefits and ease of hiring international graduates. This is a positive step, but the resource would benefit from government promotion to encourage employers to take note.

Collaborative action is taking place across the higher education sector. Nottingham Trent University, on behalf of the Midlands International Group, recently led a training webinar for over 130 local employers to educate them on immigration routes and the benefits of hiring international graduate talent.

Coventry University is planning similar activity and the five universities in Northeast England have set up a task-and-finish group to help employers understand how to navigate the immigration landscape. Their training for employers will include an employer panel session which will include representatives from multinationals, SMEs and public sector who have recently hired an international graduate from one of the region’s universities.

We hope these initiatives can be replicated across the UK to show employers how the Graduate route visa can enhance their workplaces.

Reflecting on the human stories contained within the case studies, we would echo calls for the government to reaffirm its commitment to the retention of the Graduate route visa, and to join with universities to work with employers to ensure that they can extract full benefit from this world class talent pool on our campuses.

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