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Decision time

Jamie Arrowsmith braces for the government’s response on graduate visas

This week saw the publication of the Migration Advisory Committee’s much-anticipated rapid review of the graduate route—and it didn’t disappoint. After much speculation, the MAC was tasked with providing evidence to the Home Office on whether or not the graduate route was meeting the objectives that had been set by the government and on whether there was any sign of abuse, or of the quality and integrity of the UK’s higher education system being undermined.

The headline findings were unequivocal: the graduate route is doing what the government wanted it to do, there are no signs of serious abuse, and it should be retained in its current form.

This was a conclusion welcomed by most in the sector. International recruitment is critical to universities, and increasingly so after years of frozen fees and research being funded below the cost of delivery. Accusations that universities have somehow become addicted to international fee income and have actively sought to develop an unsustainable business model are wide of the mark; it has been the policy of successive governments that domestic teaching and research are cross-subsidised from other sources. But as costs rise and fees don’t, university research and financial sustainability more broadly have been increasingly reliant on that fee income.

The MAC recognises this and—consistent with the message in its annual report, published in December 2023—notes that changes to immigration policy cannot be viewed in isolation.

Government can change policy, and it can change or prioritise different objectives. That’s its right. But it is also responsible for the consequences of those decisions—and taking further action to reduce student numbers without addressing the underlying funding policy challenges that have created the dependencies in the system would be a gross dereliction of duty.

Nothing off the table

However, none of the reasoned arguments put forward by the MAC have carried much weight with those who just want to see immigration slashed regardless of the consequences. The former immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, and former undersecretary of state for health, Neil O’Brien, called the report a “whitewash”. Number 10 has also been clear that it is not beholden to the MAC. It is quite clear that no option is off the table, regardless of the MAC’s conclusions.

But here’s the thing: the report that’s currently being pilloried by many on the right doesn’t say that government has failed. Indeed, quite the opposite; it says government policy has worked. In particular, the changes announced last year (notably around restrictions to dependant visas, which are now the most punitive of any major study destination) have precipitated a huge fall in numbers. The chair of the MAC, Brian Bell, suggests there’s a danger of overcorrection. And the Home Office itself has stated that dependant visas are down 80 per cent.

That’s why the MAC sees no case for change. The graduate route is working, and any concerns about continuing growth are completely outdated.

So why are we in a situation where an independent review—commissioned by the government, who appointed the members of the committee and set the terms of reference—has concluded government policy has worked but is now under such blatant attack?

All about the politics

The answer is that this was never really about policy; it was about politics. The position the government finds itself in—and the prime minister in particular—is precarious. Some will argue—are actively arguing, in fact—that there’s nothing to lose by a further cut to international student numbers, and by making the UK less attractive. If universities are collateral damage, then so be it.

But, as the Office for Students has shown this week, sector finances are in a precarious state. Further restrictions on international students for the sake of a short-term political gamble are likely to precipitate damaging cuts across the sector. The chances of policy changes being matched by funding to underwrite any significant losses seems remote in the extreme.

The government will, therefore, own that damage. In marginal constituencies across the UK—with an election to come later this year—many may be driven to ask why, in the face of course closures and job losses, such a damaging policy had been pursued despite clear and explicit warnings of the likely consequences?

Net migration figures

The question is, where do we go from here? It’s clear that the government will need to make an announcement; too much political capital has been staked, and the politics are too fraught for this to fizzle out. And the release of the net migration figures next week will no doubt increase the political pressure on the PM.

Numbers are likely to continue trending downwards but remain too high for those intent on attacking the government. Importantly, those figures will not include the impact of dependant visa changes—so are outdated—but the headline is likely to make for uncomfortable reading.

However, the Home Office will also publish more recent visa data that will—we expect—show the gravity of the falls that have been seen in the first three months of the year, and that would be good news for the PM. Which numbers the government decides to lead with will tell us a lot about the ground on which the next election is going to be fought.

Recruitment practices

Regardless of the focus on the MAC’s headline announcement, the review was not a clean bill of health for the sector. More concerns were raised about the behaviour of agents and recruitment practices. More needs to be done to ensure that any growth is coordinated across regions. There needs to be greater transparency around how universities recruit international students, the promises that are being made, and how these students are supported into, throughout and beyond their studies.

So all eyes are on the next week, and whether the prime minister will heed the advice of the government’s independent experts—and, if rumours are to be believed, many of his own cabinet—and resist the urge to pander to the right of his party.

Jamie Arrowsmith is director of Universities UK International