UK to review if graduate visas are 'undermining quality' of higher education

Home Secretary James Cleverly says he wants to ensure graduate visa scheme is 'not being abused'

Where to from here? University graduates. PA
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A UK government committee that advises ministers on migration issues is set to evaluate whether the graduate visa system is “undermining the integrity and quality” of the higher education system.

Home Secretary James Cleverly has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to assess if the visa system – which allows overseas graduates to stay in the UK for two or three years after graduation – is supporting the country's ambition to attract and retain “the brightest and the best”.

The government announced in December that it would ask the committee to review the graduate visas.

But in the letter published on Tuesday, Mr Cleverly said he wanted to ensure that the system was “not being abused” and that some of the demand for study visas “is not being driven more by a desire for immigration rather than education”.

University leaders warned last month that the government could “damage” the economies of towns and cities with policies that deter international students from coming to the UK.

Universities UK suggested that uncertainty over the government’s commitment to the UK’s post-study work offer is affecting prospective students' decisions.

In his correspondence to Prof Brian Bell, chairman of the committee, Mr Cleverly said the review into the graduate visa could include any possible evidence of it “not being fit for purpose”.

He also asked for the review to analyse whether the route is “undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system, including understanding how the graduate route is, or is not, effectively controlling for the quality of international students”.

Mr Cleverly has asked the committee to report back by May 14 and he said the government will consider its analysis “with a view to implementing any changes in due course”.

“After months of delay, the announcement that a review of the graduate route will now be rushed through in a matter of weeks and in the run-up to a general election is deeply concerning," said Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities.

“It was only 2021 that the government published an updated international education strategy, which contained the explicit aim of increasing the number of international students and diversifying recruitment, an agenda that is now undermined at every turn.

“Higher education is a huge British success story, an area where the country truly is world-leading.

“It is impossible to imagine the government going out of its way to make Britain less inviting to investment in almost any other sector.

"And yet every negative headline and policy reform that makes Britain less attractive to international students damages both the higher education sector and UK PLC, and only benefits competitor nations.

“The graduate route is a key component of the offer that UK universities can make to international applicants and its value should be recognised and not eroded.”

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, said: “We welcome the opportunity to engage with the Migration Advisory Committee to make a robust, evidence-based case on the value of the current system.

“However, we are deeply concerned by the accelerated timetable, which appears to be driven by political – not policy – concerns.

"The government should give the MAC the time it needs to properly review the graduate visa, allowing the committee to consider the full range of evidence and engage in meaningful consultation, rather than asking them to rush their response.

“It is also important to recognise that the purpose of the graduate route is not primarily to address UK labour market shortages, but to enhance the competitiveness of the UK as a study destination.

"Post-study work matters for many international students, allowing those who have invested in our country the opportunity to find work and contribute to the UK economy.

“Having publicly recommitted to the graduate route on its current terms in May 2023, any further changes would be extremely damaging to our reputation as a welcoming destination for international students, and risks undermining a UK success story that generates more than £20 billion [$26 billion] a year in export earnings for the economy.”

Updated: March 12, 2024, 10:58 PM