What to look out for in the MAC review

James Coe explains the origins of the Migration Advisory Committee review of the Graduate route, and what might emerge

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

In March Home Secretary James Cleverly commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to carry out a “rapid review of the Graduate route.”

The Graduate route launched in 2021 and allows students to stay in the UK for two years, or three years for PhD students, after graduation. Students do not need to have a job offer or earn a particular salary to secure a visa through the Graduate route.

The MAC – an independent body staffed with labour market economists and migration experts – was asked to comment on whether the route is fit for purpose, who is using the route, demographic trends, what students do on graduation, and impact on the quality of the UK’s higher education system. Already, the committee has shared concerns that the timeline for such a significant review is exceptionally short.

Nine to five

The Graduate route was was in essence a relaunch of a former policy, the post-study work visa, that allowed international students to stay in the UK and work for a defined period of time. Some would use the route to transition into longer term employment, while others would gain the benefit of UK work experience before returning to their home country. The post-study visa was cancelled in 2012 when Theresa May was Home Secretary, as part of an effort to meet then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.

In what feels like an announcement from a different era, the 2021 press release accompanying the launch of the Graduate route said it would “allow the UK to retain the brightest and best international students to continue to contribute to society and the economy post-study.”

The government is now concerned that the Graduate route has not functioned in the way it intended. As Cleverly wrote in his letter to the MAC he wants reassurance that “some of the demand for study visas is not being driven more by a desire for immigration.” As Jim Dickinson has written for Wonkhe the growing number of international students and international student graduates and dependents has led to debates on the pressure this cohort is exerting on public services.

Cleverly also points out in his letter to MAC that since the Graduate route was established a total of 175,872 visas have been granted. He goes on to suggest that he is particularly concerned with the 32 per cent undergraduate growth in 2021-22 and the 250 per cent postgraduate growth between 2018-22 in the “lowest UCAS tariff quartiles.”

Commissioning the MAC review is not the first corrective action the government has taken. In May 2023 the government restricted the ability for PGT students to bring dependants and in December 2023 it increased the salary threshold for the Skilled Worker route as part of a wider crackdown on immigration numbers.

A hard day’s night

The reasons for the review are partially policy driven but they are also driven by a political desire to reduce the total amount of net migration to the UK. Cleverly has already signalled that the reforms on dependants are taking effect.

The challenge for universities is that in an era of declining resources the recruitment of international students is the most significant income source that makes their finances stack up. There is a direct link between the actual and likely decline in international student numbers and the current financial challenges universities are facing.

Equally, given the significant growth in international student numbers in the past two years across the sector it was always likely a government interested in reducing migration would look into how the scheme bumps into wider policy objectives.

Time after time

On Tuesday the MAC will return with a range of analysis and recommendations on the Graduate route. We do not know what it might recommend but we do know that universities have made significant efforts to demonstrate the wider educational, cultural, and economic impact of international students to the committee.

Following the production of the report there are likely four options that the government could opt for:

  • deem that reforms so far have done enough to dampen demand, and leave the Graduate route as it is while keeping it under review
  • reduce the length of eligibility to stay in the UK following graduation from two years to either one year or six months
  • tie eligibility for the Graduate route to attending a high ranking or high tariff university
  • abolish the Graduate route entirely.

Of these options it seems the least likely, but not impossible, that it will abolish the Graduate route entirely. The sector fears that this will further dampen demand from international students and the current financial crisis in higher education would become a full-blown sector catastrophe.

It is not impossible the government will choose to leave the route as it is for now, given the wider slowing of student demand due to the Home Secretary’s actions to date, but this will depend both on the review’s findings about the nature and scale of “abuse” of the route, and on how confident Cleverly (and Sunak) are in managing wider immigration politics within the Conservative party and how strongly the MAC frames its findings.

Of the remaining options tying eligibility to specific kinds of universities is challenging and undesirable for all kinds of reasons.

There is no conclusive evidence yet that the issues which the Home Secretary is worried about, particularly gaining a student visa to progress through the Graduate route, is correlated to the type of providers or their entry tariff. There is also no clear evidence that international students at particular providers are going on to fulfil less valuable roles in the labour market when they graduate than others. It could be that if the Home Secretary chooses to restrict the use of the Graduate route he will inadvertently harm the labour market more generally. The lack of data on international students and their employment outcomes is a real hindrance to sensible policy making here.

For the sector a reduction in the length of time of time someone can remain on a Graduate route visa would be undesirable but it may end up being the least bad of not very good options. It would likely impact demand from students but it would not as fundamentally alter the sector in the way removing or benchmarking the visa entirely would.

Workin’ for a livin’

The government response to the MAC review will be pretty swift. On 23 May ONS is releasing net migration figures for 2023, and the saliency of comparing one calendar year to its predecessors always makes this moment a flashpoint in the wider media. It would not be entirely surprising to see an announcement in or around that time.

The report of the MAC will be keenly watched across the sector. Its outcomes will not only impact future planning but will impact the decisions of students that are already holding on to a university place for September 2024 whose decision is partially based on whether they can stay in the UK for a time after their study. We know from Australia that tightening migration rules for international students has already had a significant impact on universities.

For the sector the challenge is not only how to financially cope if there is a radical change in policy but how to support students whose lives may be profoundly changed by these decisions. Undoubtedly, there will be students who are in our institutions today or hoping to come to them who applied to study in the UK under one set of assumptions and could be faced with a different world entirely.

For the current government there is a disinclination to accept the argument that the UK’s university brand is one of the country’s leading global assets and its attractiveness is because of the perceptions of its quality. But the wider financial squeeze on universities, sharp changes to visa regulations, and public noises about quality may achieve short-term policy aims and win some political points, but ultimately it will put the sector under enormous, and probably unncecessary, strain.

One response to “What to look out for in the MAC review

  1. It’s a difficult balance. Using the figures above, I can see an argument for a 32% increase in international students at a UG level as a good thing. But I really can’t see an argument for increasing numbers of PGT students at low tariff universities by 250%. It’s wrong to call it abuse, but it’s clearly an unintended, but inevitable, consequence of the policy change.

    Also, going almost overnight from 90% of international students leaving the country on finishing their course to about half staying on graduation was a major change that hadn’t been planned for. This is just as much to do with the staffing crisis in social care as it is to do with the graduate visa though.

    On the other hand, the case for scrapping the graduate visa is weakened by the recent visa changes (ban on dependants, a higher salary threshold for a skilled work visa and higher visa fees) which have already seen international student numbers drop sharply and severely weakened the incentives to use a student visa (and perhaps the graduate visa) as a pathway to long-term residency.

    In my opinion, the thing to look out for in the review is what the outcomes are for international students on the graduate visa. If they’re doing internships and getting other valuable work experience to help them get a skilled job either in their home country or in the UK (on a skilled worker visa), then I think they should keep the graduate visa. But, if people are ending up stuck in low paid jobs (eg in hospitality) then I’d rather the graduate visa be scrapped than offer international students a false promise that isn’t being fulfilled.

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