“End the uncertainty”: protect Graduate Route, sector urges

Published 14/05/2024

After an emphatic endorsement of the UK’s Graduate Route by the Migration Advisory Committee’s rapid review, stakeholders sector-wide are urging government to keep the visa in its current form.

“We must now end the debate on [the Graduate Route’s] future which has been damaging recruitment,” said the co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students, Lord Bilimoria and Labour MP Paul Blomfield.

“We need a clear commitment to its future and more support for students to maximise its benefits for them, employers and communities,” they continued.

Such sentiment was echoed by much of the sector; the Russell Group‘s chief executive Tim Bradshaw also urged the government to end the uncertainty surrounding the future of the post-study work window.

“The overall message from the MAC is that the Graduate Route is achieving its objectives as set out by the government,” he reiterated.

Calling international students “net contributors to the UK”, UUK chief Vivienne Stern stressed how important they are to the UK’s ability to “compete as a study destination”.

“We understand the political pressure to reduce migration but, as the report makes clear, changes introduced earlier this year to prevent postgraduate taught students bringing dependants have already had a very significant effect.

“What we need now is stability – we need the government to provide much needed reassurance to both universities and international students that the graduate route is here to stay,” she said.

Jo Johnson, former universities minister and member of the House of Lords, said the news coming out of the review was a “clear evidence-led conclusion that should take damaging options right off the table”.

“They may aim to reduce the Graduate Route to six months, but as a manifesto pledge”

The fact there was no evidence of widespread abuse resonated with many in the sector – with the review going as far as saying that data given in the home secretary‘s commissioning letter suggesting over half of those on the Graduate Route who switched onto the Skilled Worker route was incorrect.

“[This conclusion] is a testament to the integrity of the system and the value it brings to both international students and the higher education sector.

“We expect the government and the relevant authorities to look into the recommendation thoroughly and not take the unilateral kinds of decisions which are not in line with the [MAC],” Aritra Ghosal, founder and director of Indian operator OneStep Global, told The PIE.

Speculation emerged on LinkedIn about what might come next – even as early as May 23, when the next net migration figures are expected, Jamie Arrowsmith of UUKi predicted.

“Personally I still think they may aim to reduce the Graduate Route to six months, but as a manifesto pledge rather than an immediate policy change,” commented Dan Smith, founder of Student Housing Consultancy.

“Immigration is their last hope of an election victory and they need some good news ASAP… it would show just how desperate they are if they don’t just ignore this report, [but] bury [it] as a dead end and move onto showing the success of the dependent visa cap,” he continued.

Despite protestations from Conservative parliamentary-undersecretary for primary care and public health Neil O’Brien – who called the report “rather a whitewash” with “narrow terms of reference” – Independent HE stressed accepting the recommendation would be a “fresh commitment” from the government.

“We urge the government to swiftly confirm they will follow their experts’ recommendation… [and] to maximise the benefits that international students bring towns, cities and constituencies across every nation and region of the UK,” said Alex Proudfoot, Independent HE’s CEO.

In the nation’s capital, London Higher‘s CEO directly called out the government’s recent immigration policies, pointing out that “changing the Graduate Route won’t get us any closer to meeting the pledge to ‘stop the boats'”.

“Now is not the time to play politics with one of the country’s greatest export industries and national assets,” said Diana Beech.

“Now is not the time to play politics with one of the country’s greatest export industries and national assets”

BusinessLDN, which aims to bring business to the city, noted the “plummeting” international applications for UK universities places since the review was announced in December.

“The government must move swiftly to reverse that impact – failure to act… risks long-term damage to a key export sector.

“It should now work with education providers to bolster our status as a world leader in this industry, including by protecting the Graduate Visa as a driver of economic growth and contributor to our talent pipeline,” said policy delivery director Mark Hilton.

The Home Office said in a statement that it would be considering the findings before making any decisions.

It reiterated that it had “taken decisive action to address unsustainable levels of migration and our plans are working”.

In his letter to the home secretary, MAC chair Brian Bell said measures already taken by the government, including banning dependents, has already had an effect on applications.

“The changes to the rules on student dependants… are in effect a change to the dependant rules of the Graduate route… [they] will likely have a significant effect on Graduate route usage going forward.

“Whilst initial data suggests these changes are already substantially reducing international student numbers, we believe their full impact should be assessed before considering further changes,” Bell urged.

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