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Visa plea

Koen Lamberts urgently appeals for the graduate route visa to stay as it is

As the Migration Advisory Committee prepares to publish its much-anticipated review of the graduate route visa, there has been much speculation in the sector about what it will say and—perhaps more importantly—what the government’s response will be. As the MAC chair has pointed out, the committee did not have much time to do its work; the report was commissioned just nine weeks ago. If it turns out that the MAC was not able to collect sufficient (or sufficiently robust) evidence, it will be difficult to justify any subsequent decision to change or remove the graduate route visa. This doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing will be done.

The risks we face are well-rehearsed, and I won’t dwell on them too much. It is no secret that the current funding model means that higher education income has been under pressure in real terms for many years. In most universities, fees from international students cross-subsidise other, loss-making activities, including the teaching of domestic students and research.

There is also very good evidence that students consider employment opportunities alongside institutional reputation and quality of education in deciding where to study. Restricting or removing the graduate route visa will mean, therefore, that fewer international students choose to study in the UK. An immediate consequence will be that most universities will have to change their fundamental business model to survive. This could be done in a number of ways, but would almost certainly require a dilution of resources, which would inevitably weaken our institutions.

Not only would restricting the route affect our ability to fund research, it would also effectively deter the brightest and best students from around the world—the innovators and startup founders of the future—from coming to the UK. This is at odds with the government’s ambition for the UK to be a global science superpower. Former science minister George Freeman was entirely right when he pointed out that we will never be a science superpower behind a visa paywall. 

Economic jeopardy

But it is not just universities arguing against changes that would limit the number of international students coming to the UK. Since the launch of the government’s International Education Strategy in 2019, and the introduction of the graduate route visa, growth in international student recruitment to the UK has delivered a boost of more than £60 billion to the UK’s economy.

In regions across the country, there is real concern that these economic benefits could be put in jeopardy. Last week, the leaders of the 11 major UK cities outside of London published a letter to the chair of the MAC stressing the importance of international students to their communities and stating their strong support for retaining the graduate route visa.

That said, uncertainty around the future of the graduate visa, coupled with the ban on postgraduate taught students bringing dependants with them to the UK, is already having an impact on the attractiveness of the country as a study destination. Enroly data from November found visa issuance was down by 71 per cent for January enrolments compared with the same stage last year, and last month, provisional government statistics suggested there had been an 80 per cent year-on-year fall in student-dependant applications in the first quarter of 2024. 

It is no wonder, then, that the sector has been united in its feedback to the MAC and the government that the graduate route visa needs stability and certainty. It is an important tool in the global competition for international students, who are key to the success of universities and communities across the UK. Post-study work opportunities are an essential part of any offer to international students, giving them the chance to build on the education they receive at the UK’s world-leading universities.

Business backing

We must not forget that employers also benefit. In Sheffield, for instance, we have numerous businesses that have filled vital skills gaps by employing our highly skilled international graduates. If the time period of the graduate route visa were to be reduced to a year or six months, it would mean that only casual work would be available to international graduates, with little or no opportunity for further in-work development. This would not be meaningful, and nor does it align with the government’s focus on high-quality graduate roles. And, let’s be clear, not all good graduate jobs across all regions and sectors pay the £38,700 starting salary required for a skilled worker visa.

When the home secretary commissioned the MAC review of the graduate visa, he said it was to ensure the route was working “in the best interests of the UK” and that “steps are being taken to prevent abuse”. I am sure no one in the sector would disagree with measures that address any abuse of the system, and we would work constructively with the government to stamp this out. That said, Home Office analysis has shown holders of graduate visas to have the highest rate of compliance of any visa category.

My hope is that if the MAC is in a position to make any recommendations, it advises that the graduate visa remains in its current form and is not reduced or removed. We should remember that the route is relatively new and students in its first cohort have only recently started to come to the end of their visa terms. The route needs to be given time so it can be properly assessed, and the sector would be happy to work with the government to do this. Knee-jerk political decisions could have disastrous and wide-ranging consequences for universities, students and communities across the UK.

Koen Lamberts is president and vice-chancellor at the University of Sheffield, and chair of UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA)