What the QS-UUKi polling tells us about the Graduate route

Aside from the fact it’s worth asking students what they are thinking and planning

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

One thing that has emerged from the MAC review is that the government has never really had a clear plan in mind for those on the Graduate route.

If we look back to the government’s “strategic objective” at launch:

The Graduate route is introduced to enhance the offer to international students who choose, or are considering choosing, to study in the UK. It is intended to retain their talent upon graduation thus contributing to the UK economy. Through increasing the attractiveness of the UK as a destination of study, the policy will ensure the UK remains internationally competitive, assist to achieve the Government’s ambition to increase the number of international students in higher education and increase the value of education exports.

So there’s something about retaining talent, and another point about enhancing the international offer. The Migration Advisory Committee passed it on both.

The original impact assessment also envisaged “benefits to employers from accessing a pool of candidates without sponsoring requirements” and “long-term impacts on skilled work migration,” and then professed to be unable to quantify these. It thought the route’s introduction would increase the UK’s international reputation through graduates’ positive perceptions of the UK – and again had no plan in place to keep an eye on this.

On the negatives, it predicted indirect costs to increased international recruitment from congestion and housing, and again did not attempt to attach figures to these.

Part of the reason that all these various outputs are so hard to quantify (and therefore essentially ignored until they suddenly become an object of intense scrutiny) is because there wasn’t much thought given to finding out about what students want. And once the route became active, both the government and – let’s be honest – the sector as a whole have not been collecting reliable data on students’ plans, experiences, and outcomes.

Given all this, you can’t help but think that a lot of the data points from today’s QS and UUKi report on international student outcomes ought to be feeding into a proper rolling assessment of how well the Graduate route is working.

To take a somewhat simplistic example, 73 per cent of those respondents on the route reported feeling a connection with the UK, versus 65 per cent on other visas. If soft power is an ambition, perhaps the government could have the odd metric in place to evaluate this?

For reference, the report is based on students graduating from UK universities from 2019 to 2024, with 10,513 respondents overall, though we’re not told what proportion of these are on the Graduate visa as far as I can make out. It’s clearly not a fully representative sample as the average salary given by those respondents on the Graduate route is £29,200, comfortably in excess of what was suggested by the HMRC data that accompanied the MAC review.

In the aftermath of MAC, sector figures and right-wing commentators squabbled about whether post-study work was a route to permanent settlement, and whether the limited HMRC data attached to the review was a smoking gun about low paid work. It would have been nice to have on hand some reliable and representative data around what students want to get out of post-study work.

According to the QS/UUKi report, some 75 per cent of those on the Graduate route were planning to remain in the UK temporarily, versus 25 per cent who wanted to remain permanently. For 48 per cent of respondents, getting UK work experience was a priority (the top response).

This framing of work experience and spending a couple of years building up skills and CVs rather than earning as much as possible, has been almost totally absent from the ongoing argument. Regular hard and fast data on this would be really helpful. For many – perhaps around half, this one survey suggests – personal and professional development is a key part of the “enhancing the international offer” side of the route. At the same time, this sits awkwardly with the other stated aim of graduates supplying their labour to the UK job market.

Part of the problem with this all is that the route hasn’t been open long enough to really make firm conclusions based only on outcomes – but another part is the issue of “don’t launch a visa route without a data plan in place.”

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