Could the UK Graduate Route be axed?


Could the UK Graduate Route be axed?

“Incoherent. Short-sighted. Cack-handed. Intrusive. Counter-productive. One thesaurus is not enough to describe the folly of the British government’s policy towards foreign students.”

Could the UK close the Graduate Route visa so soon after it was introduced? Image: Pexels

This is a quote from Timothy Garton Ash writing in The Guardian about the UK government’s inclusion of international students in their efforts to reduce net migration.

The trouble is, the quote is taken from 2014 – nine years ago.

Garton Ash was reporting on the fallout from then prime minister David Cameron, axing the previous post-study work visa, back in 2012.

According to Home Office statistics, student visas issued to Indian students fell by 50% in the first year after its removal.

Fast forward to the brink of 2024 and it feels like history might be repeating itself.

The former prime minister is back, now as Lord Cameron, and this time in the role of secretary of state for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and the coincidence doesn’t bode well.

His surprise appointment comes at a time when the Conservative government is doubling-down on efforts to control immigration ahead of a general election.

In the decade since the government pledged to reduce immigration, it has in fact increased three-fold – signalling some last-minute cramming of policy to stem the tide.

As reported in The PIE, the home secretary James Cleverly announced that the Migration Advisory Committee has been asked to review the Graduate Route – the UK’s current post-study work visa.

“It is important that we now put to bed the suggestion that this visa will be scrapped”

This action forms part of five other measures to tackle immigration including raising salary thresholds for the skilled worker and family visas.

The review of the Graduate Route is “to prevent abuse and protect the integrity and quality of UK higher education”, said Cleverly.

No mention of the tens of thousands of pounds international students pay for tuition fees and accommodation each year – subsidising the very same quality higher education system he is trying to protect.

This week, a survey of over 8,000 postgraduate students by FindAUniversity revealed that two thirds of prospective applicants would be less likely to study in the UK if there was a change to the Graduate Route.

Impact of cutting the Graduate Route.

The potential impact would be greatest for South Asian postgraduate taught students, covering almost 50% of the current market diversity.

Mark Bennett, director of audience and insight at FindAUniversity commented, saying, “It’s concerning, though hardly surprising, to see that prospective students would be put off by changes to the Graduate Route.

“The biggest issue right now is the uncertainty created by a pending review. In a year of drastic changes, international students need reassurance that the UK is serious about welcoming them to study and succeed.”

The sharp fall in visas issued for September and January enrolments since the government announced a ban on dependants, could indicate the UK already has a reputation problem.

The proposed changes will only expedite that unwelcoming message further.

So has the damage already been done and will the MAC report spell the end for the Graduate Route?

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said “it is important that we now put to bed the suggestion that this visa will be scrapped, which will go a long way to reassuring prospective international students that the UK remains an attractive destination.”

The Graduate Route was after all only introduced in 2021 in a shake up to the visa system.

There have only been a handful of graduating cohorts able to access it, and the majority of undergraduates who chose the UK for this very benefit will not graduate until summer 2024.

The MAC report will be struggling to find any meaningful data on the impact, compounded by HESA’s decision to stop calling international graduates and tracking their career outcomes.

It would seem ludicrous that the UK would harm one of its most important export industries for short term political gain.

But recent history has a familiar cycle to it. You only have to look at the last decade to see that the government views international student demand like a tap it can turn on and off as a control measure to immigration.

Home Office policy often feels entirely at odds to the Department for Business and Trade and the Department for Education who are the authors of the International Education Strategy for the UK.

Speaking to The PIE in 2022 about high demand for the UK from Nigerian students, Bukky Awofisayo, business development manager from Intake Education gave an ominous prediction that now seems pertinent.

“In my opinion, these things happen and expire. It’s a boom now, but it’s just going to be for a time period,” said Awofisayo.

“Back [before 2012] there was this opportunity to work after students graduated. Then it was suspended and now it came back. So I believe it will also have an end because of how sustainable it can be. Only time will tell.”

It will be a nervous wait for the MAC to make its recommendations, with so much at stake. Not least because when the tap was turned off last time, it took more than a decade to turn back on.

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