A review of the Graduate route

Cleverly’s five-point plan to get legal migration down includes a review of the UK post-study work offer

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The government has announced that the Migration Advisory Committee will review the Graduate route – “to ensure it works in the best interests of the UK and to ensure steps are being taken to prevent abuse.”

Home Secretary James Cleverly’s statement to the House of Commons reiterated previously announced changes to dependant rules for students (exempting only those on postgraduate research programmes), and the requirement that students complete their course before transferring to a work visa.

Cleverly also announced that the salary threshold for skilled worker visas will rise to £38,700. There’s no explicit education exemption – so from a science point of view, if we assume that postdocs are on something like £30-36k, there’s would be a cruel irony in the government kneecapping the UK’s chances of survival as a major research centre on the very same day that we finalised the UK’s association to Horizon and Copernicus.

That said, the press release says:

… we will exempt those on national pay scales, for example teachers.

Let’s hope that includes academic staff in universities.

The family migration changes are also pretty steep. The minimum income required for a British citizen or settled foreign national to sponsor a spouse or partner right now stands at  £18,600 – and is being increased to £38,700. They will have the option of either separating and living in different countries or moving abroad together.

Meanwhile the announcement of a review soon after the expansion of the graduate route does little suggest that the government has international students’ (or the sectors’) interests at heart.

An announcement, rather than a policy intervention, is arguably the worst of both worlds, in that it will deter international students from considering the UK while failing to address the government’s stated goal of reducing immigration. It is unlikely that the review will report before the general election, but the mood music overseas will be as clear as it ever was.

To put this in context, I spoke to Rachel MacSween, Director of Partnerships and Stakeholder Engagement, at international recruitment specialists IDP Connect. She told me that:

IDP are still seeing growth to the UK from most markets and to all other major study destinations that IDP recruit to (US, Canada, Australia, NZ). That said, the percentage share against the other major study destinations for the UK is declining, especially against Australia. It’s fair to say that the UK’s share of the demand in enrolments and applications for future cycles is feeling the pressure of stiff global competition.

When I asked her about the reasons behind this decline in competitiveness she was pretty clear in her answer:

From our teams on the ground in source markets, we know the policy environments elsewhere are perceived to be more favourable so the UK is facing a reputational downturn as a study destination. UK growth in 2022 and 2023 also benefited from a hangover in other destinations of much stricter border controls from Covid-19. Now that those restrictions are lifted, other destinations – especially Australia – have a concerted effort behind them to rebound and that is impacting the UK’s share of students.

IDP also has data on the importance of the graduate route. A survey of 10,000 prospective and current students found that:

  • “Good employment opportunities after graduation” is the second in a list of five primary factors behind students making the UK their first choice of study destination (behind only “high quality of education”)
  • Some 65 per cent of applicants and current students say they will apply for a post-study work visa. An 62 per cent of applicants and current students say that the availability of this visa is the main factor or an influencing factor in where they choose to study – with 47 per cent indicating they would consider a change in their study destination if the duration of the post-study work visa was shortened.

Putting this in an international context, the UK ranks third on a list of preferred destinations for post study work visa policies, behind Canada and Australia but ahead of the USA. For graduate employment opportunities, the UK ranks fourth (with a declining score) behind Australia, Canada, and the US.

Clearly there is a global effect – the IDP data also shows that 56 per cent of students globally are reconsidering studying overseas altogether due to the cost of living. But today’s announcement will at the very minimum create additional uncertainty over the UK as a destination.

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