The MAC Review: 10 takeaways

Published 15/05/2024

The MAC Review’s findings were extensive and well-rounded, despite a very quick turnaround time, as multiple stakeholders pointed out on May 14.

Here we review some of the key takeaways from the Migration Advisory Committee review into the Graduate Route.

1. The outcome couldn’t be clearer: the Graduate Route should remain

MAC: “After reviewing the evidence, our conclusion is clear. The Graduate route has broadly achieved, and continues to achieve, the objectives set by this government. We therefore recommend that the route remains in place in its current form.”

The Migration Advisory Committee was widely expected to recommend a further tightening of the visa regime, having previously indicated that the Graduate Route should be curtailed. Yet after months of speculation, the recommendation of the review was crystal clear in keeping the Graduate Route visa as it is.

It leaves the government with very little wriggle-room to justify further policy changes, however data cited in the report evidencing students working as low skilled labour; and popularity of the Graduate Route amongst graduates from low-ranking institutions, will fuel the debate.

2. No abuses of the system

MAC: “We found no evidence of any significant abuse of the Graduate route. By abuse we mean deliberate non-compliance with immigration rules.”

Ensuring the integrity of the visa system was the core mission of this review, yet MAC found no evidence of such breaches. It was noted that government policy objectives relating to the type of work graduates undertake or if coming to the UK legally on a work or study visa and led to a legitimate asylum application, did not constitute abuse of the system. MAC also highlights the Student Route visa as more susceptible to fraudulent abuse than the Graduate Route, but is out of scope for this review.

3. Agents seen as a possible problem – and is the AQF the answer?

MAC: “We do have concerns over the use of recruitment agents by universities in certain markets in providing misleading information to prospective international students. Agents simply do not have the same incentives as universities.

“We recommend that the government consider whether mandatory requirements would ensure good practice and that universities be required to publish information on their use of agents to improve disclosure. This will help protect the integrity of the UK Higher Education system.”

Great strides have been made between the various stakeholders involved in developing the AQF to create a national framework for agent management in the UK. However the ‘voluntary’ nature of the code of practice is highlighted by MAC as being ineffective to consider poor practice by agents.

Several of the students interviewed by MAC make reference to being mis-sold locations, courses or having personal statements written on their behalf. Cue more national newspaper headlines about the sales culture between agents, institutions and vulnerable students.

4. Government policy lacks cohesion and integrated planning

MAC: “It appears there was a lack of coordination or consideration across government of the implications of increasing student numbers for public services and housing at a local level.”

MAC repeatedly returns to the government’s own International Education Strategy and the mission to attract the ‘best and brightest’ students, meet export targets and promote the breadth of diversity in the UK education offering. The review points out the glaring incoherence between immigration policy and funding of public services against this strategy, and goes as far as reprimanding policymakers for only considering the impact on migration rather than the bigger picture.

5. The home secretary was wrong about graduate level jobs

MAC: “Having spoken to the data owners in the Home Office, we have found the data that informed these claims do not in fact show Graduate visa holders switching into work routes. The statement made in the commissioning letter regarding where Graduate visa holders work post-route is therefore incorrect.”

There are several barbed remarks about poor data infrastructure in the report, but the assertation that the statement in the Home Office’s commissioning letter was wrong, stands out. The letter stated that only 23% of Graduate Route students switch to graduate level jobs, however MAC found 69% of students on the Graduate Route were switching into occupations that are classified as: Managers, directors, and senior officials; Professional occupations; or Associate professional and technical occupations. Although there was a higher pertinacity into healthcare professions.

6. Salary thresholds are the real deterrent

MAC: “We expect the share of people moving from the Graduate Route to long-term work visas in the UK to decline due to significant increases in salary thresholds on the Skilled Worker route.”

While many in the sector will be celebrating the proposed protection of the Graduate Route, the real damage my have already been done with the increase in Skilled Worker visa salary threshold to £30,960 (new entrant discount applied).

MAC points out that of the Graduate visa holders who started the route between July 2021 to December 2021 and switched into the Skilled Worker route, approximately 40% would not have met the new salary thresholds. The logic follows that if progressing students fail to find well-paid graduate roles, then the appeal of a post-study work visa will decline.

7. Graduates don’t stay in their study locations

MAC: “40% of applicants to the Graduate Route were based in London (based on address at application stage). Comparing this with the regional distribution of Student visas, this suggests that students may be moving to London for work after graduating from universities.”

Much has been made of the economic benefit of students to both the regional and national economies but MAC presents evidence that graduates are moving away from most regions and nations after graduating, heading towards big cities in the North West, West Midlands and London.

A big part of the immigration debate is about the geographical spread of people in the UK and the resulting economic pressures and benefits. The review also points out that by only recording an address at the point of application, the government are unable to track students who move for work or even leave the country.

8. The visa appeals to graduates from lower ranking institutions

MAC: “Approximately 10% of international postgraduate students in the UK who attended a university ranked between 1 and 200 (the highest ranked) globally went on to obtain a Graduate visa, whilst 30% of those who attended universities ranked 800+ went on to obtain a Graduate visa.”

This aspect of the report is being seized upon by anti-immigration policy makers, as the majority of the growth since the Graduate Route’s introduction has been to non-Russell Group universities’ postgraduate courses (66% of all Graduate visas), something defended by the vice-chancellor for the University of Greenwich on UK radio. Modern universities have also experienced the highest growth of student applications since the Graduate Route was announced.

MAC questions if this is evidence that the route is not attracting the ‘brightest and best’ students – although the definition is vague and access to highly ranked institutions is subject to affordability rather than academic attainment. Similarly at postgraduate level, admissions requirements are very similar across all universities due to the limited number of degree classifications.

9. Employers are still unaware of the Graduate Route

MAC: “A lack of awareness of the Graduate route amongst employers was reported as a barrier to those on the route seeking employment.”

Perhaps the most powerful evidence is that of the student voice in the MAC review. Students are quoted as being discriminated against in the job application process because employers did not want to sponsor them. In addition the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students (APPG) also reported that students and those on the route were having to explain conditions of the route to employers themselves.

In 2023, a study by HEPI showed that just 3% of surveyed employers were actively using the graduate route, with 27% not even familiar with the scheme.

10. Student immigration is a product of underfunding in higher education

MAC: “As in social care, it is the failure to properly fund the sector that has led to an increasing over-reliance on immigration. Universities lose money on teaching domestic students and on research activities, and it is the fee revenue from international students that mitigates (at least in part) the current funding gap for domestic students and research.

“We have had no indication in our discussion with Ministers, either in Westminster or the Devolved Administrations, that there is any plan in place to address this structural under-funding.”

MAC points out the obvious conflict of interest in appointing an independent review made up of committee members who are currently paid employees of UK universities but the report makes it clear that universities seeking to diversify funding have driven the reliance on overseas students. The foreword outlines the current impasse saying “any policy change to the Graduate Route intended to reduce student numbers would need to explain how the financial consequences for the sector would be addressed.”

At the time of writing, we await the official government response.

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