You’re giving us how long to review the Graduate route?

The Migration Advisory Committee has been given a tight turnaround for its review of post-study work – and it’s not impressed

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

While the cynical might say that Home Secretary James Cleverly’s announcement of a review of the Graduate route was largely intended to allow him to write op-eds in the Daily Mail announcing (or re-announcing) a review of the Graduate route, there’s no doubt that it has fostered an uncertainty over the future of the scheme that will influence prospective student behaviour.

The terms of reference for the review, which have just been made public, are largely boilerplate: analysis of demographics of who is using the route and from what universities they graduated, of the roles graduates work in during and after their time on the route, and “any evidence of abuse of the route” – including whether the route is fit for purpose. This was more or less to be expected following the tenor of the announcement back in December when Cleverly first revealed that the (independent, advisory) Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) would be asked to conduct a review.

More notable is the date which the MAC is asked to report by: 14 May. There were certainly some in the higher education sector who assumed – based on a sensible estimate of how long it would take to pull off a thorough review of the facts driven by careful analysis of messy data – that the review would kick the can of the issue towards the back end of 2024, and the immediate harms would come through the further stoking of perceptions of hostility to international students, rather than any changes to immigration rules.

The Home Secretary has sprung a slight surprise here by calling for a rapid review – and the MAC has immediately pointed out that this presents some significant problems.

The committee’s acknowledgement of the request notes that the speedy turnaround requested means there will be no time for a call for evidence, and the timescale will “substantially limit the quality and quantity of evidence that we can provide to answer the questions including in the commissioning letter.” If its disgruntlement with the commission was unclear, we also get the following observation:

We also note that it has taken longer for the government to commission us than we have been given to complete the review.

Quite why the review has taken so long to launch is not clear – it did the government no favours with the Daily Mail, which accompanied Cleverly’s article with a piece chiding that the government had finally opened a review of post-study work options.

A question of data

The MAC’s response to the commission makes an urgent request for Home Office data about individuals on the Graduate route to make the review feasible, linked to Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), switches onto Skilled Worker visas, and HMRC records. It cautions that, without this, “we will be unable to respond to some of the questions set out in the commissioning letter.” The committee gives 26 March as a deadline, noting that it will “provide an update if we do not receive the data required to conduct the review by this date.”

Could it be that a lack of data oversight on the part of the Home Office is the nub of this whole question? The Home Secretary’s commissioning letter rationalises the review against a backdrop of only 23 per cent of students who switched from the Graduate route to the Skilled Worker route in 2023 going into graduate-level jobs, and a wider picture of the Graduate route not leading to higher-paid work:

In 2023, 32% of international graduates switching into work routes earned a salary above the general threshold at the time (£26,200), with just 16% earning over £30,000 – meaning that the vast majority of those completing the Graduate route go into work earning less than the median wage of other graduates. Initial data shows that the majority of international students switching from the Graduate route into the Skilled Worker route go into care work. This is clearly not what the Government intended in the 2019 Manifesto when it pledged to establish the Graduate route to attract the best and brightest students to study in the UK.

There’s no doubt that there’s a wider discussion here about student destinations – and yet the “initial data” mentioned is from a report by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory (from MAC member Madeleine Sumption) – published in January. And where’s the data from?

Freedom of information requests to the Home Office.

So it’s no surprise that the MAC is now pointing out that it needs the Home Office to provide it with a pile of data that is largely not in the public domain. It’s almost as if the government could have been paying closer attention to what has been happening with international students and graduates over the last few years.

A question of timing

There’s something else going on with the May deadline given to the committee. Universities will immediately be worrying about whether potential changes to the Graduate route could be (even more) in the air in time to influence applicant behaviour for the September intake.

But there’s also now the possibility that commitments around post-study work could make it into party manifestos, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if the MAC had done a full review over the course of 2024. The Conservatives might use the review’s findings to inform further promises around acting tough on headline immigration numbers.

And Labour would be forced to take a position. To the extent the opposition has done so during the last 18 months of the government’s politicising of student visas, it has largely agreed to uphold changes (e.g. over dependants) while playing for the moral high ground.

All in all, the announcement of May as a reporting date may well prove to be the most significant part of this week’s announcement.

The sector will certainly take some comfort from the government’s request for the review to be carried out with the support of UK “international education champion” Steve Smith, who will be keenly aware of the importance of international recruitment to the sector. The MAC does note however that it will “maintain its independence” throughout the process.

A question of discounts

Another significant point is the Home Secretary’s observation that “international students will continue to be eligible for the new entrant discount to secure a Skilled Worker visa to remain in the UK beyond their two years on the Graduate route.”

Students currently can qualify for a discounted salary threshold after their time on the Graduate route expires – the government has previously indicated, in the context of employing postdocs, that the “new entrant” discount rate would continue to apply. But the exact regulations around the discount rate connected to the substantial uplift to salary thresholds are being published on Thursday, and this has been another element of uncertainty around the UK’s future offer to international students – while the Graduate route is clearly a key selling point for many, employment prospects after the two years elapse (or three years for doctoral students) are pretty important too.

Cleverly looks to have confirmed that there’s no change here, for now at least. But this could be an area where there is more to be said.

The MAC has already conducted one rapid review this year, of the new Immigration Salary List, and suggested that the government consider the impact of its other immigration rule changes on the use of new entrant discount – it remains to be seen whether it will, and the MAC will conduct a fuller review later this year.

That is, if it ever gets a minute to do proper, considered analysis of how the morass of shifting immigration regulations affecting international students are playing out in the labour market. As opposed to nakedly political quickfire reviews, based on evidence that the Home Office has but isn’t looking at.

Update 29 April 2024: The Migration Observatory report referred to above has now been substantially amended due to issues with the data. Read more here.

7 responses to “You’re giving us how long to review the Graduate route?

  1. I think you are correct to speculate about a potential manifesto commitment aimed at reducing student immigration. In that context, Donelan’s denial that there are any financial issues within the sector makes sense and isn’t just a denial of any wrong-doing over the last several years.

  2. All this implies that the assessment in most universities are flawed. Majority of international students are getting degrees or graduating without having any skills to enter skilled jobs. Ho are they passing the assessments? What does this mean to the value of an assessment? In reaality, many students use essay mills to succcessfully graduate. Contract cheating business has boomed and many assessments (including dissertations) are being bought. People are buying degrees. I am saying this as an academic with evidence and talking to students.

    1. 👋👍 I am absolutely agree with you Sir this people not a young real students and they have no intention to return back to there country.They are immigrant coming for better life.They are fake students they using Graduate Visa route to settle in UK to get a British Passport and claim benefits after settlement.Do you really believe they will contribute to UK economy?The answer is No.This people hiring teachers from abroad from UK universities paying them money to write all assessments essays.It is very easy because there is no face to face exams everything only by online submission.UK government must to think about this uneducated students who has no knowledge at all.How they can work if they not really studied at University ?What they can offer to UK economy? Nothings they only use taxpayers money for free healthcare, education as they all coming at least with 2-3 children .They not working not paying taxes but using all services for free .It is unfair using taxpayers money for people who has no connection to UK.If they coming with kids they have to pay for all expenses themself not using taxpayers money. Graduate Visa was a big UK government mistake because this is the only legal route to Migrate to UK with family.As this fake student cannot bring family to UK as a Master student now they will all start study PHD to settle in UK.This people knew the power of British Passport as a British Passport holders you can travel all World without Visa requirements to other countries.This people know everything how to get advantages from taxpayers money.Most of this student coming through their National Sponsorship Programme they all have obligation to return back and work in their own county for 5 years .But they not returning back thanks to Graduate Visa programme .The Immigration system in UK is broken there is no control at all they even not checking not asking students for Sponsorship approval letter they just granting Graduate Visa to everyone.Does UK needs this type of people who uses National Scholarship money makes promises and at the end not keeping promises to return back.UK universities defending Graduate Visa Route because they charging international student double.They are making huge financial profit from international students and helping them .There is no limits of students who comes through Scholarship programmes,Can UK housing sector,NHS, Schools cope with the unlimited number of students ? Because of them house rent has increased.UK population can not afford to pay rent but they living and studying for free.Most countries intentionally sending students through the National Scholarship Programme to UK for settlement to have a voice in the future using as a political issue.If the government will not take action now in few year times the UK will be ruled by other nationalities. Britain must open their eyes .Why this countries intentionally sending student to UK paying for all expenses .What is a purpose of sending this students to UK? Government must think what was a point of Brexit? Why people voted for Brexit? Britain is most attractive place in the World they all dreaming to come to UK and live for for free Everything is free .Why PHD students not paying Council Tax? In my opinion Graduate Visa must be abolish at all as is not attracting high professionals.

      1. You can’t settle on a graduate visa it is just for 2/3 years depending on your course! It’s a temporary route unless you switch to a skilled job under the skilled worker visa or smethins similar! In my experience of working with hundreds of international graduates each year at a highly ranked UK University they bring an enormous amount to the UK in terms of revenue as well as skills that we are currently short of in the UK economy. Keep the graduate visa but make more employers aware of it and reduce the new high salary requirements for the skilled worker.

  3. what a horrible crass generalisation, you two will be out of a job if there are no international students, so think on

    1. …and that, or most of that, is what we all now need to model! It would be catastrophic for the economy, NHS, students/prospective students and HEIs with any action leading to a large reduction. Is any government really likely to voluntarily cause this to happen? Do those members of the general population most exercised by immigration really think this is a problem of having too many students?

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