Keep Graduate Visa Route, Say Migration Advisers

Downing Street responded that the priority of the education system should be British students and student visas ’must be used for education, not immigration.’
Keep Graduate Visa Route, Say Migration Advisers
University graduates in an undated file photo. (Chris Ison/PA)
Victoria Friedman

The Graduate visa route is “not undermining” the quality and integrity of the British university system and there is no evidence of “widespread abuse” for immigration purposes, the government’s immigration advisers have said.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended in its response to the Home Office on Tuesday that the Graduate scheme, which allows international students to stay in the UK for two to three years unsponsored after graduating, should remain in its current form.

On March 11, Home Secretary James Cleverly ordered a rapid review of the Graduate route. Mr. Cleverly wanted the MAC to scrutinise the programme over concerns that some demand for study visas was being driven “more by a desire for immigration rather than education.”

The MAC said in its May 14 response that since the introduction of the Graduate route in July 2021, there has been a “rapid increase” in the number of visas granted. In 2023, 144,000 visas were granted, more than double (66,000) those issued the year before. Last year, a further 30,000 were issued for dependents.

In a letter to the home secretary summarising their findings, Professor Brian Bell, chairman of the MAC, said, “We recommend retaining the Graduate route in its current form,” saying the scheme was “broadly achieving the objectives set out by the Home Office” and supporting the government’s education policy.

“We have not found evidence of widespread abuse on the Graduate route, where we define abuse as deliberate non-compliance with immigration rules, and we conclude that the route is not undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system,” Mr. Bell said.

Signalling that overseas fees are helping to make up for universities’ financial losses, Mr. Bell also said, “Given international student fees help make up the financial deficit that universities have from teaching domestic students and research, any significant restrictions to the route should only be considered once the structural funding issues in the higher education sector have been addressed.”

1 in 5 Graduate Route Switchers Go Into Care Work

Mr. Cleverly had suggested in his March letter that a high proportion of those on the Graduate scheme who switched to another visa route had gone into low-paid or care work.

While the MAC said data initially referenced by the home secretary on graduate switchers going into care work was “incorrect,” the migration advisers admitted that 20 percent of Graduate route switchers had gone into the profession.

This proportion is “still significantly higher than the domestic graduate population, where only 6% work in the entire ‘Caring, leisure and other service’ occupations,” the report said.

In January, rules came into effect to restrict international graduate students from bringing dependents with them, which appear to be having an impact on visa numbers.
Home Office figures released on April 30 found that for the first quarter of 2024, the number of overseas student dependent visas issued dropped by 80 percent compared to the same quarter last year.

Downing Street: ‘Student Visas Must Be Used for Education, Not Immigration’

A Downing Street spokesman said the government would set out its response to the MAC’s rapid review “in due course,” but insisted that the higher education sector should prioritise British students and focus on education, not immigration.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “[Prime Minister Rishi Sunak] has said before that British students should be the priority for our education system and universities and student visas must be used for education, not immigration.

“We are focused on driving down migration whilst ensuring the UK attracts the best and the brightest.”

He added that Mr. Sunak “has been clear that legal migration numbers are too high.”

“We are working to bring those down. We have already seen a significant fall, a 24% fall, following the introduction of reforms previously introduced, but he still thinks there’s further to go,” he added.

Economic Impacts of Graduate Route ‘Probably Very Small’

The MAC outlined the career prospects for recent graduates of the scheme, finding that “Graduate visa holders are initially overrepresented in lower-paid work (below the Skilled Worker route threshold for health and care occupations), but that their outcomes improve over time.”

During a Home Affairs Select Committee on legal migration on Wednesday, Conservative MP for Bassetlaw Brendan Clarke-Smith asked Madeleine Sumption, the director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, whether there were any substantial economic benefits to come out of the Graduate route.

“I think the impacts of the graduate route are probably very small,” Ms. Sumption replied.

“The [MAC] report suggests that it’s probably a small fiscal positive, because people are young and not eligible for benefits while they’re on the route.”

The Migration Observatory director said that the Graduate scheme has been “much more successful if you look at the objective of attracting students to universities, than it has been in bringing people who have good labour market outcomes in the UK.”

“For those who stay, their outcomes are broadly the same as domestic graduates, but not better,” she observed.

The Home Office’s strategic objectives in its impact assessment for the Graduate route are to enhance the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for study, ensuring the UK remains “internationally competitive,” and to retain students’ talent upon graduation, “thus contributing to the UK economy.”

PA Media contributed to this report.