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Graduate visas retained, but ‘under review’

Image: ALFSnaiper, via Getty Images

Ministers announce new overseas student recruitment requirements

The graduate route visa will be retained “under review” the government has said, as it announced a string of measures designed to crack down on “abuse” of the route by international students.

The possibility of the government tightening or even abolishing the visa route, as part of its plans to curb net migration, had caused widespread concern. But on 23 May, in response to recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), the Home Office and Department for Education said it would be retained—at least for now—stating that the route “will be kept under review”.

‘Stringent framework’

The government also promised to introduce a “stringent framework” for the use of international student recruitment agents, adherence to which will be mandatory for UK higher education institutions.

In addition, universities that fail to meet “tougher compliance standards” for visa sponsor licences could have their licence revoked.

“Those who accept international students who then fail to pass visa checks, enrol or complete their courses, will risk losing their sponsor licence,” the government said.

Ministers also plan to raise applicant financial maintenance requirements, meaning that international students will “have to prove their financial self-sufficiency”, and an ongoing wider review of English language assessments will aim to ensure that “all international students are equipped with the skills to understand their course materials—or they shouldn’t expect a spot at a UK university”.

Finally, ministers plan to introduce restrictions on remote delivery designed to ensure all overseas students “are predominantly undertaking face-to-face courses”.

The reforms are broadly in line with the recommendations of the MAC, which reports to the Home Office and produced a review of graduate visas earlier this month.

Crackdown on international agents

James Cleverly, the home secretary, said the government had taken “decisive and necessary action to deliver the largest cut in legal migration in our country’s history”.

“But we must go further to make sure our immigration routes aren’t abused,” he said. “That’s why we are cracking down on rogue international agents and, building on work across government, to ensure international students are coming here to study, not work.”

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said she was “proud that British universities have a fantastic reputation both at home and abroad”, but that it was “right that we strike the balance between controlling immigration and making sure the UK remains the ‘go to’ place for students around the world”.

Overseas students ‘enhance our cultural life’

Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor at the University of Birmingham, told Research Professional News that the government accepting the MAC’s recommendation to maintain graduate visas in their current form “is great news, and demonstrates the value of evidence in framing public policy”.

“Although there is a lot of emphasis on the financial contribution that international students make to our universities and local and national economies, just as important are the ways that they enhance our cultural life and underpin a deep affection for the UK around the world,” he said.

Vivienne Stern, the Universities UK chief executive, said: “It is a huge relief to have confirmation from government that the graduate route remains in place.  

“We share the government’s commitment to tackling any abuse of the visa system and support efforts to tighten restrictions on agents, which are in line with much of what we have proposed. We will work diligently with government to ensure we maintain a high level of trust and confidence in the way universities recruit and support international students.

“It is in all our interests that we do so, given the enormous value that international students bring to the whole of the UK, and not just to universities themselves. What we need now is a period of stability, and a shared commitment to delivering a stable and well managed international student landscape.”  

Fall in study-related visas

The reforms come as official UK net migration figures for non-EU migrants in 2023, also published today, show that the number on study-related visas have decreased by 24.7 per cent year on year.

The Office for National Statistics data—which present initial estimates—reveal that the number of study-related visas, including student and dependant visas, was an estimated 247,000 in 2023. This is down 24.7 per cent year on year, and means the number of study visas issued has been overtaken by the number of work visas issued.

Across all study-related visas—including students and dependants—numbers were down from 419,000 to 379,000, a drop of 9.5 per cent.

Overall, the OfS put total net migration at 685,000 in 2023, down more than 10 per cent from 764,000 the previous year—but still historically high. The ONS said it was “too early to say if this is the start of a new downward trend”.

Also published today is a Universities UK report on the experience of UK-based international students.

It found that the graduate route visa provides “a favourable learning and developmental environment for graduates and positive relationships with employers”, while 73 per cent of surveyed graduates felt the visa met their expectations.

The report, published with QS Quacquarelli Symonds, found that those on the graduate route visa contribute significantly to the UK economy, with many working in key sectors such as healthcare and education, while 71 per cent said they felt a lasting connection with the UK.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of UUK International, said it was “essential [to] continually reflect and improve our offer to international students”.

Continuing to fall

The ONS figures pre-date the introduction of recent Home Office measures designed to cut the number of student visas, which came into force in January—including a curb on the number of dependants international students can bring to the UK. However, on 22 May, the government published provisional data on visa applications for January to April 2024.

There were 79 per cent fewer student dependant applications in the first four months of 2024, the Home Office said, with more than 30,000 fewer student visa applications made in total during that period compared to 2023.