‘Relief’ as reports suggest graduate visa will be retained

Rishi Sunak looking at launching a clampdown on recruitment agents but has backtracked on reforms to UK’s post-study work rights, according to reports

May 22, 2024
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The UK sector has welcomed reports that the government has backtracked on plans to reform or scrap the graduate route, which is seen as central to the country’s offer to international students.

A crackdown on the two-year post-study work visa has been seen as a way for prime minister Rishi Sunak to reduce record immigration to the UK, but universities have repeatedly highlighted its importance, particularly as many now face deficits because they lose money on domestic fees and research. 

A key review published last week by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended the visa remain unchanged but Number 10 has so far declined to commit to its findings, despite interventions from a number of government ministers.

According to the Financial Times, Mr Sunak will undertake a “more modest package of reforms” but will keep the graduate route open – for now. 

“UK universities already rank among the best in the world. Should the rumours be true that the prime minister will recommit to the graduate route, their position is only set to get a great deal stronger,” said Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former policy adviser to Conservative universities ministers.

“While governments elsewhere in the world are busy closing the door on international talent, the UK can show it is standing firm in its commitment to international students, and prospective applicants to UK universities can rest safe in the knowledge that they are both wanted and welcome.”

The government is instead planning to announce a clampdown on recruitment agents that fail to supply the type of students they have promised, the FT reported.

Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, said the MAC review showed that the visa is working broadly as intended.

“Scrapping it or radically scaling it back would have been a completely unnecessary economic own goal. However, the sector is far from out of the woods, and will have to work hard to rebuild its image, and that of the UK, in key target markets.”

The MAC report warned that the effect that previously announced changes – such as the ban on dependants introduced in January – were already having an effect on international recruitment that was not yet being reflected in the official data. 

The latest immigration statistics, due out on 23 May, will also not take these into account because they only cover up until the end of the year. 

Rosalind Gill, head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business said the sector should not underestimate the impact that the wider changes the government is planning for international students will have.

“In no uncertain terms, the government’s migration policies are going to risk weakening the UK university sector, and in turn, undermine a key reason for companies to invest in the country. The university sector is a strategic UK asset,” she said.

Dr Gill said urgent warnings about the pressures on the university sector – such as a recent report from the Office for Students that there was a “material risk” that some providers could close – need to be listened to and addressed.

Ruth Arnold, executive director of external affairs at Study Group and co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign, said she felt a “deep sense of relief” that it appears the UK will retain the vital route.

“The MAC was clear and there is ample evidence to back up their findings,” she added. “Now we have to turn our care and attention back to students, remove confusion and reiterate welcome.

“This a good day but damage was done and now we need to rebuild confidence together, drawing on the shared purpose of recent weeks.”

Sanam Arora, chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK, said the uncertainty caused around the graduate visa has "unleashed chaos in the sector and a great deal of anxiety and stress amongst current and prospective students".

"I also welcome MAC's recommendations around agents, a mandatory regulatory framework is something NISAU has been asking for much of the last decade and also raised as part of our recommendations to MAC," she added.


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