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What to expect in government response to graduate visa review

Image: SolStock, via Getty Images

Reports suggest softer-touch reforms are now expected from ministers

On 23 May, the Office for National Statistics will publish the latest data on UK net migration, with many in the higher education sector concerned about what knock-on effects the statistics might have for universities.

It has long been thought that ministers were drawing up plans to restrict or even abolish the graduate route visa, which permits international students to remain in the UK for two years after completing their studies (or three years for doctorates).

If the ONS data show net migration to be at or close to a record high—as the last statistics did in November—the government will want to set out how it is looking to tackle this. While polling suggests that the general public views illegal immigration as a priority area for crackdowns, it is far easier for the government to restrict legal routes such as post-study visas.

However, it is thought that while prime minister Rishi Sunak had been minded to target graduates by removing their post-study visa rights, there has been a softening of opinion in Whitehall.

One reason for this is the recent “rapid review” of graduate visas, commissioned by the Home Office in March and published by the Migration Advisory Committee on 14 May. While the government might have hoped for the review to recommend further restrictions, the MAC in fact stated that the graduate route visa should be maintained in its current form.

Another thing in universities’ favour could be the fact that recent government policy changes that target international students—including preventing overseas master’s students from bringing dependants with them when they come to study—came into effect in January, which is after the period covered by tomorrow’s ONS publication.

This means that ministers will be able to point to reforms they have already introduced as part of their response to the new migration figures. The MAC report said that around 30,000 dependants joined the graduate route in 2023.

“In addition, the evidence suggests that the change in dependants policy has already substantially contributed to reduced international student recruitment beyond this for September 2024,” the MAC said. “Early indications suggest a 63 per cent reduction in the number of deposits paid for the September 2024 intake by international postgraduate applicants for institutions in the UK compared to the same time in the previous year.”

It is therefore likely that there will be a significant reduction in future use of the graduate route as a result of policy changes already introduced.

What next?

While it has been reported in multiple outlets that Sunak will now stop short of abolishing or restructuring the graduate route visa, it is still widely expected that there will be some policy changes relating to international student recruitment.

According to a Financial Times report, “senior government officials” have suggested that a “more modest package of reforms” is now on the table—including a clampdown on student recruitment agents.

How this might operate remains to be seen, but the MAC report cited concern that agents in certain markets were “providing misleading information to prospective international students”.

There is a voluntary framework to address these concerns, but the MAC said there was “insufficient evidence that this voluntary code will prove effective against deliberate poor practice”. It recommended 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”. There are also reports that fines could be levied at agents found to be engaging in poor recruitment practices.

Another proposal could see ministers “cracking down on universities that allow students to do all of their study abroad simply to benefit from UK work opportunities afterwards”, the Financial Times reported. This would impact students on predominantly remote or online courses. There could also be mandatory English language tests for those wishing to remain in the UK after their studies, according to a report in the Guardian.

‘Urgent warning’

Responding to the reports, Rosalind Gill, head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business, said the reports that the government is planning to retain the graduate route visa were “of course welcome”.

“However, we should not underestimate the impact that the wider changes the government is planning for international students will have, especially when layered on top of changes already delivered in January,” Gill said. “In no uncertain terms, the government’s migration policies are going to risk weakening the UK university sector and, in turn, undermine a key reason for companies to invest in the country.”

She said UK universities were a strategic UK asset and urged the government to create an environment in which the sector can “succeed and remain at the cutting edge”.

“We need a fundamental shift in the debate on universities. Politicians must consider what they can do to set universities up to succeed rather than fail. Urgent warnings about the pressures on the university sector need to be listened to and addressed.”

The government has said it will formally respond to the MAC review “in due course”.