The Graduate route review must pay due regard to why it was introduced in the first place

Concerns about "abuse" of the Graduate route seem to have lost sight of the original policy intention behind creating it. Harry Anderson sets out the history lesson

Harry Anderson is assistant director (policy and global engagement) at Universities UK International

When the government launched its International Education Strategy in 2019, the purpose of reintroducing a competitive post-study work offer was clear: to enable universities to compete on the global stage to recruit international students, to increase and diversify that recruitment, and to help boost export earnings.

We should know. Universities UK, together with others, led the campaigning and advocacy work to help reverse close to a decade of stagnation in international students coming to the UK, by reintroducing a Graduate visa.

As the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recognises, judged in these terms the Graduate route has been a “resounding success”.

Not only has it helped bring the UK’s offer in line with some of our international competitors, and in doing so enabled the UK to regain our position as the second most popular study destination for globally mobile students, it has also underpinned a huge economic contribution – with research commissioned by UUKi showing that a single cohort of international students generated almost £42 billion for the UK in 2021-22.

And while it is easier to measure the impact of international students in cold hard cash, the soft power generated for the UK cannot be underestimated. Those international students who chose to come and study in the UK enrich our campuses and communities, and many go on to become important ambassadors for the UK in later life – something we rightly celebrate, which again was recognised by the MAC.

Skilled work, or skilled worker visa?

That the Graduate visa has been such a clear success story makes it all the more confusing that we are now seeing an alternative narrative developing – one which suggests the main reason the Graduate visa was introduced was to retain talent to move straight into “skilled work”.

From the outset, we should be clear that universities already provide significant support to students looking for work following their studies. This is true for international students, just as it is true for domestic students. Everyone across the sector wants to see international students offered the opportunity to transition into work, allowing them time to develop their skills, and maximise the positive contribution they can make to the UK.

So, it is disappointing to hear a growing number of commentators suggest that international students on the Graduate visa ought to immediately be going into “skilled work” after they finish their studies.

Many are already – with research from AGCAS suggesting that 72 per cent of Graduate visa holders are working in graduate-level roles and working across an impressive range of organisations. But we also know from previous research that there is still much more to be done to promote awareness of the Graduate visa among employers, something which is particularly true when the UK labour market is so tight.

The Graduate visa was deliberately designed with no salary, skill, or sponsorship requirements, with government advertising it to international students as “an unsponsored route, meaning you do not need a job offer to apply for the route” and allowing the opportunity “to work flexibly, switch jobs and develop your career in the UK as required.”

Put bluntly, if skilled work was always the concern, then there’s already an immigration route for that. It’s called the Skilled Worker visa. The Graduate route was – and remains – an innovative and highly successful policy intervention that aims to solve a very different problem.

And with the government having recently increased the required salary level for the Skilled Worker visa by 50 per cent to £38,700, if anything, the role the Graduate visa plays in “supporting the pathway into high-quality jobs” (to quote the Home Secretary) is only made more important.

Understanding “abuse” within the Graduate visa

On announcing the review of the Graduate route, the government has said the aim would be “to prevent abuse and protect the integrity and quality of the UK’s outstanding higher education sector.”

At the time of writing, it’s not entirely clear what “abuse” in this context would look like. No one wants abuse of the system, so it will be important that universities engage with the MAC on this point. But it would be deeply concerning if government sees a change in profile of students choosing the UK (which is entirely in line with its own strategy) as somehow suggestive of abuse or misuse.

After all, we know how seriously universities take compliance with the immigration rules. That is why we have worked with members to help strengthen and improve international recruitment practices in recent months. And just this month – together with the British Universities International Liaison Association, UK Council for International Student Affairs, and the British Council – we have developed a pledge for members to sign to demonstrate their commitment to the UK Agent Quality Framework. Universities UK also worked closely with government to support the end to visa switching, which had promoted undesirable student behaviour.

Net migration

What is also baffling is that closing the Graduate visa would not be the panacea government thinks it might be when trying to reduce net migration.

We know that the vast majority (80 per cent) of international students leave within five years of arrival and, while the numbers remaining in the UK are increasing, this should not be a surprise – or a concern – given the Graduate visa was introduced to allow individuals more time to remain in the UK to work or look for work. In effect, it’s a design feature, not flaw, of the visa.

Yet even with this increase, we’d expect to see net migration dropping down as the numbers level out and those who came here on a study visa leave again – either after their studies, or following some time on the Graduate visa or another work visa.

And with other countries reopening to international students following the pandemic – plus the changes for PGT student dependants coming into effect from May – there are already signs that international student recruitment is looking far more volatile than in previous recruitment cycles.

These changes will take time to filter through into the net migration figures, but there is certainly little need for further intervention to bring down numbers. For a government focussed on cutting migration, this may be seen as a success. What this means for university finances is, however, another matter altogether.

Reassuring current and prospective students

So with the MAC set to review the Graduate visa, we need to remember why this route was introduced and the role it plays within our wider offer to international students.

There are already signs that international student recruitment is looking far more volatile than in previous recruitment cycles, and while it is too early to say for sure, numbers already appear to be declining.

The latest government intervention will do little to improve this situation and risks making a bad situation worse. The single best thing the government could do right now would be to end the uncertainty and put to bed any suggestion that the Graduate visa will be scrapped.

Doing so would go a long way to reassuring prospective international students and, in doing so, help underline the whole reason the Graduate route was introduced in the first place – to ensure the UK has an internationally competitive visa offer.

Leave a Reply