The proposed revival of the post-study work visa has been welcome news to the higher education sector.
Students, universities and even UCU have celebrated the return (in principle) of the visa, which was scrapped by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012. But it’s the practice that will matter – and it may not be as positive as it first seems.
The new scheme – called the “Graduate Route” – will allow eligible graduates to work at any skill and salary level, unlike the Tier 2 work visa (which is generally limited to jobs at RQF 6 and above, and subject to a salary requirement of £30,000/£20,800 for “new entrants” including fresh graduates). Unlike the old post-study work visa, the Graduate Route is limited to only graduates from those institutions which have a “track record” of compliance with visa rules. And while the full details are still unclear, students graduating from the summer of 2021 onwards are likely to benefit from the route.
Some will win
The biggest winners, naturally, are international students who start in the 2020/21 academic year. These students will now get 2 years to work in the country after graduation, earning income and gaining valuable work experience that could help them transition into a skilled job after their leave to remain runs out. It’s a valuable proposition; according to the Russell Group, the number of international students remaining in the UK for work fell by 87% after the post-study work visa was scrapped in 2012, indicating the potential for high demand among eligible students.
It’s worth noting that this is also a win for the broader student movement. Both the NUS and independent student campaigns like Post Study Work Visa Now (founded by former NUS Scotland International Officer Manish Khatri) have called for a post-study work visa. With the NUS International Students’ Campaign effectively de-funded as a result of cuts within the organisation, one last win wouldn’t be out of place.
While the bump in international graduates entering the job market is likely to be smaller than 87% due to restrictions on which graduates can apply, employers are likely to benefit as well. An influx of talented international students allowed to work at any skill and salary level means that post-Brexit, employers will be able to make up for the loss of European workers. The Confederation of British Industry has previously called for the government to scrap the Tier 2 salary requirement so employers can “access the range of skills that they need” after Brexit; naturally, they’re celebrating the announcement of the Graduate Route.
Meanwhile, the champagne corks are probably coming off at some universities. Universities with a strong track record of immigration compliance stand to gain from an influx of international students. Each international student is potentially worth up to 2.8 times as much as a home student (at undergraduate level, excluding medical degrees). International student income is likely to be invaluable if the current government intransigence on HE funding continues, and especially important if the Augar Review and its tuition fee cuts are actually implemented.
Finally, the move is a victory for the government of the day on two fronts. The visa is likely to be part of an attempt to improve relations with post-Brexit trade partners; the British High Commission in India and British Embassy in China, respectively the UK’s 2nd- and 4th- largest non-EU trading partners and top 2 sending countries for international students in HE, released their own separate announcements touting the benefits of international study and the UK’s friendliness towards the people of those nations.
While education is an export in itself, Universities UK also points out that “77% of graduates want to retain business links with [the UK]”. If the current Tier 2 restrictions remain in place, a significant portion of Graduate Route visa holders may still eventually be required to return home. A surge in international students with work experience in the UK may thus mean even closer ties between British and overseas businesses, which will no doubt be invaluable for trade after Brexit.
The introduction of the Graduate Route is also already being presented as part of the Conservative Party’s 2018 promise to implement an (allegedly, a word which does a lot of work here) “fairer immigration system”. Rhetoric around recruiting “the best and brightest from around the world” with the Graduate Route and the benefits that international students bring, regardless of their country of origin, is likely meant to reinforce the message that a skills-based immigration system will be (again, allegedly) “fairer” in principle than the May-era combination of a hostile environment (for non-EU migrants) and freedom of movement for EU nationals. Given the drubbing Boris Johnson, as well as the party as a whole, has taken on its hostility to immigration, even a shred of positive news is likely to be considered a win.
Some will lose
However, we can’t all be winners. Current students who will graduate before 2021 are understandably upset that they won’t benefit from the scheme. Excluding PhD students, most international students have between 4-6 months after graduating to find a Tier 2 job or go home; a Parliamentary petition has been started to extend the scheme to students who held a Tier 4 visa when it was announced, and the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU) UK, representing Indian students and alumni, has called on Boris Johnson to do the same. The government has, unfortunately, rejected these calls.
Universities without a track record of visa compliance also stand to lose out; as Wonkhe’s David Kernohan points out, smaller providers may be barred from this scheme due to past visa refusals. Combined with funding cuts, a flow of profitable international applicants from these providers to larger, more compliant providers may damage their bottom line, and possibly tip some of them over the edge.
The Graduate Route also fails to address how difficult it is to retain international talent in the UK, which poses challenges to both international students and employers. Without further changes to visa rules, we may merely be delaying the outflow of skilled graduates.
Even if the Immigration White Paper’s recommendations on eliminating the Resident Labour Market Test, expanding the Tier 2 visa to cover RQF 3-5 jobs and removing the skilled worker cap are implemented, the £30,000 Tier 2 visa salary floor will continue to be an obstacle to securing a Tier 2 visa once the 2 years on a Graduate Route visa are up. This will continue to stop international students from building a real career in the UK (something that takes more than 2 years!) and prevent many SMEs, NGOs and other employers which can’t hit the salary floor from retaining valuable and experienced global talent.
Where settlement is concerned, international students face further challenges. If the Graduate Route is implemented along the lines of the former post-study work visa, it will not count towards the 5-year route to settlement. Even the international students who transition from the Graduate Route to a Tier 2 work visa after 2 years face a salary floor which rises every year; based on current trends, they will likely need to earn over £40,000 by the time they are first eligible in 2028, or be forced to leave.
The main route to settlement for these international talents is thus the 10-year route to settlement This could be pieced together from 3 years of study (sorry, taught postgraduates), spending the maximum 2 years on the Graduate Route, and 5 years of Tier 2 work. The costs involved are significant; excluding the costs incurred during study, the application fee for the Graduate Route and other costs like immigration advice and miscellaneous application-related charges, the process works out to a minimum of between £5,703 and £6,647, broken down into:
- £2,800 for the Immigration Health Surcharge, at £400 a year
- £464-£1,408 in Tier 2 work visa application fees
- £2,439 for the settlement application (including £50 for the mandatory Life in the UK test)
It goes on, and on, and on, and on
By now, it should be clear that the new Graduate Route is only a small step towards the goal of retaining international talent. Without further changes, such as extending the Graduate Route to all current international students and even providing special allowances for international graduates with respect to settlement, the Graduate Route thus risks simply postponing the departure of international talent from the UK, to the detriment of all.
The sector, students and advocates cannot afford to hold on to the feeling of victory – the battle is won, but the war is far from over. We can’t stop believing in a better immigration system that allows international graduates to stay on and contribute, rather than sending them home.