A new report from AGCAS is the first to shine a light on the lived experiences of international graduates seeking UK employment.
HEPI recently highlighted employers’ perceptions of the Graduate route visa, suggesting that many were not even aware of its existence, never mind using it to meet their staffing needs and skills shortages.
Our research provides evidence for the HE sector on the facilitators and barriers to international graduate success in the UK jobs market.
International graduates have two years (three for PhD graduates) on Graduate route visas before they have to seek sponsorship to remain in the UK. These two-to-three years enable international graduates to gain work experience, develop their skills and explore their longer-term employment options.
For those who are successful in gaining employment, there is no guarantee that they will be able to secure sponsorship once the time on their Graduate visa is up. International graduates were often worried about their plans beyond this period, with uncertainty about the future limiting their ability to make longer-term plans. This uncertainty and potential policy changes to the Graduate route impacts employers too, increasing the perceived risks for employers when considering employing international graduates.
At a minimum the government must maintain the existing commitments of the Graduate route to provide stability, but ideally extend its length, to compete with post-study work offerings from other international markets.
International graduates also felt that they lost time on their Student visa because they were encouraged to apply for the Graduate route visa before their Student visa expired to be eligible for full-time employment.
I could have used those three extra months which were an extension of my Tier-4 visa because that’s the way it works. Six months after my course completion, I had those three months extra, but I had to give them up.
A simple policy fix would be to add time remaining on the Student visa to the Graduate route visa length to ensure international graduates do not lose time when applying early to the Graduate route.
Our research found that international graduates experience some resistance from employers when seeking post-study work, despite the fact that the Graduate route visa provides them with two-three years where they can work in the UK without needing sponsorship.
International graduates talked about receiving rejections based on their visa status, having offers rescinded once they disclosed their visa status and even submitting two applications -one disclosing their visa status, one not – and being shortlisted only with the application that did not disclose.
I just got blanket rejections as soon as they found out that I was an immigrant, even if I didn’t need visa sponsorship, even if I was just applying for a position for six months and my visa allows me to work for two years, I just get flat out no.
On the face of it, the opportunity to recruit from a global talent pool without requiring a sponsorship licence should be an attractive proposition to employers. But for some, particularly SMEs, the risk of policy changes curtailing their employment offers and staffing resource is too great.
Instead of continuing to debate potential restrictions on the Graduate route visa, there has to be better joined up working between the Home Office and DfE to improve the visa system, provide stability to international graduates and employers, and ensure international students can go on to make an even greater contribution to the cultural and economic prosperity of the UK.
Return on investment
Despite the challenges experienced by international graduates the research findings also demonstrate the wide range of industries and employers benefiting from international talent throughout the UK. We saw examples of SMEs, multinationals, charities and public sector organisations all using the Graduate route to recruit international graduates. When the Graduate route works, it works for everyone.
But alongside these international graduate success stories were disheartening tales from graduates struggling to find UK employment. The introduction of the Graduate route visa provided an immediate boost to the number of international students enrolling at UK institutions. We must do what we can now to avoid jeopardising the early success of the Graduate route.
Other countries have already enhanced and extended their post-study work offer to international students. If the UK is to maintain its competitive advantage and protect its share of the international student recruitment market, we must surely commit to doing the same.
The majority of international students will continue to return home after their studies, but we are fortunate that a small proportion of this cohort are so enthusiastic about starting their professional lives in the UK. Were this to be appreciated more widely then it might help to allay fears amongst employers about the likelihood of them seeing a longer term return on investment by recruiting via the Graduate route visa.
Many international students are career-focused, hard-working, and enthusiastic about starting their professional lives in the UK. They are ready to offer their time, commitment, and international knowledge to employers, but many are facing barriers to employment based on their visa status. The UK risks losing out on talented graduates if these barriers are not addressed by policy makers. As one focus group participant put it:
Why invest in people and let them go?
The research is funded by the UPP Foundation. The findings and recommendations are based on analysis of a June 2022 survey of 345 international graduates and seven focus groups (November 2022) with a total of 31 participants.