Stephen Gurman is a Careers Consultant at UCL/The Careers Group, University of London, with particular interests in issues affecting law students and international students.

It’s unsurprising that international students might want to know their chances of working in the UK, or what sort of organisations will sponsor.

Anyone who’s worked in a university careers service will have plenty of anecdotal information, and information from destinations surveys with modest response rates, but hard facts on this topic are not always easy to find.

If you were asked who you thought the top 20 sponsors by number were, you might well guess KPMG or Deloitte, but would you have included universities as almost half of that list?

As the relatively new Graduate Route post-study work visa beds in (which doesn’t require any employer sponsorship or minimum salary or skill level), perhaps now is a good time to reflect on what happened under the previous sponsored work visa route.

Those sponsors in full

In this article I look at Home Office data for graduates who held a tier 4 (student) visa and made an in-country transfer to a tier 2 (general) visa. Graduates making this transfer were exempt from the resident labour market test and the tier 2 visa cap. However, graduates making this switch still had to find work with a minimum salary level, skill level, and perhaps most importantly employer willingness to sponsor. I will discuss data from calendar years 2015-19. 2020 data is available, but of course there was a lot of disruption and many international students returning home during the academic year. In 2021 the Graduate Route post-study work visa was introduced.

The data show that despite the challenges in arranging sponsorship, over 8,000 individual organisations did sponsor a recent graduate in the period.

The data has been rounded, a 0 represents 0, 1 represents a 1 or 2, and all numbers are to the nearest 5. All numbers referred to below are based on the rounded data.

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What’s not surprising in the data?

It’s not surprising to see the data dominated by sponsorship in a small number of the 21 industry sectors, with “Professional, Scientific and Technical Activities” leading the way. This sector code is fairly wide-ranging and includes accountancy firms, professional services, consultancies and law firms among others.

Higher Education sector a significant work sponsor of recent graduates

Perhaps more interestingly, this is followed by Education. In my experience, much of the discussion within university career services around international student sponsorship focussed on whether external organisations might sponsor graduating students. However, the data shows that universities are one of the most prominent groups of sponsoring employers. For example, the Russell Group together sponsored over 3,300 graduates – more than the top 30 UK (according to “Accounting Today”) accounting firms.

Universities combined sponsored over 5,400 graduates, or around 18 per cent of all those sponsored. On reflection, perhaps the message to students looking for sponsorship should have been as much about pursuing an academic career as joining the big four professional services providers or an investment bank?

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A small number of frequent sponsors, a long tail of one-off sponsorship

As anecdotal data has long suggested, there were relatively few organisations who sponsored more than a couple of graduates a year. Only 103 organisations consistently sponsored more than 2 graduates a year across the five years (46 of those being universities). However, perhaps less obviously, there was a very long list of thousands of organisations who occasionally sponsored a graduate over that period, sometimes just once in one year.

Looking at the smallest recordable numbers in the data (1-2 sponsorships in only one of the five years), there were over 5,600 organisations who had sponsored this minimum number. Although trying to seek out an organisation who would sponsor a graduate once every five years is not an easy or efficient job-hunting strategy, it can work.

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The number of one-off instances of sponsorship could be viewed as a disappointment – perhaps those employers had a bad experience with applying for the visa, or with the individual graduate. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see that there were thousands of organisations prepared to expend the time and money to go through the process to secure a visa for a new graduate. Perhaps the one-off nature was due to a specific demand for skills, or a relationship built up with a particular graduate through an internship while at university.

Sadly, the data doesn’t reveal these stories, but it’s certainly interesting to see that despite the challenges they would have faced, there were a significant number of smaller organisations prepared to sponsor.

Who wasn’t sponsoring?

Charities and NGOs are a popular sector with students but comparing the sponsorship list to a YouGov list of the 50 most popular charities and organisations, only 4 of the 50 show-up, making up a small number of total sponsorships across the five years (13). A sign of success for the no-fee (for the employer) Graduate Route visa will be if work in this sector is more obtainable for international graduates.

The Graduate Route and Skilled Worker visas

Early data on the Graduate Route visa (Q3 and Q4 2021) shows that 26,235 graduates successfully applied for the scheme (with only 212 applications refused). With more university courses running in-person in 2021-22, and the beginning of EU citizens graduating without necessarily having pre-settled or settled status, there is the potential for this number to increase significantly in this and future years. Looking at which groups were early adopters of the Graduate Route, 34 per cent of successful applicants were Indian nationals, more than three times the number of the next largest groups (Chinese 10 per cent and Nigerian 9 per cent).

While the lack of a sponsorship requirement for the Graduate Route has upsides, some graduate employers are using the sponsored Skilled Worker route, this might be a necessity in some instances, for example where a graduate scheme would be longer than, or not fit with the timing of, a Graduate Route visa.

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The future

There was much fanfare around the introduction of the Graduate Route visa and the work opportunities it promised to international students choosing the UK as their study destination. Initial uptake of this visa looks healthy, but the question for the next few years will inevitably be “what happens to those with a Graduate Route visa?”

Hopefully we will be able to review the data in a few years and see an increase in numbers in those staying to work, and working in a broader range of sectors.

2 responses to “Who employs our international students?

  1. There may need to be some further research here. I work in Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, the long running (47 years and counting) Innovate UK grant aided scheme for business. The scheme places an Associate with the company to undertake the knowledge transfer. Associates are employed by the university on a short-term contract. In my experience the majority of applicants require a visa – I do wonder if they would be included in the numbers. To put this in perspective in 2019 there were in excess of 600 KTPs running nationally, and we had 23 projects.

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