Graduate visa route stays, as UK government proposes ‘crackdown’ on abuses and migration | News

 Graduate visa route stays, as UK government proposes ‘crackdown’ on abuses and migration | News

The UK government has proposed new measures to ‘further crack down on student visas’, but has stopped short of closing the graduate visa route. Many in the higher education sector have expressed relief that the graduate visa will stay after the government conducted a rapid review of the route as part of a series of measures to reduce net migration.


‘We welcome the news that the graduate route remains in place,’ said Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, a body that represents 24 of the country’s top research universities. ‘As recognised by the [migration advisory committee’s (MAC)] recent report, international students bring huge value to our universities, our communities and our economy.’

The uncertainty caused by the decision to review the visa has been toxic

 Vivienne Stern, Universities UK

Concerns over the future of the graduate visa were raised after Home Secretary James Cleverly wrote to the MAC in March to request a rapid review of the graduate entry route. Earlier this month, the leaders of seven higher education groups wrote to Cleverly arguing that: ‘Any changes would be extremely damaging to the UK’s reputation and standing as a leading global study destination and research powerhouse, with a severe impact on the economy both nationally and across the regions.’ They also highlighted a significant decrease in the number of international students applying to study in the UK, adding that changes to the graduate visa route ‘could turn a sharp contraction into a collapse’.

The MAC filed its report in mid-May, noting that it found ‘no evidence of any significant abuse of the graduate route’ and recommending that the route remain in place in its current form. However, it did raise concerns over the use of some recruitment agents that provide ‘misleading information to prospective international students’.

Important and welcome

The chief executive of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern, described the report’s finding that the graduate route should remain as ‘extremely important and welcome’. ‘The uncertainty caused by the decision to review the visa has been toxic,’ she said.

‘What is needed now is stability – we need the government to provide much needed reassurance to both universities and international students that the graduate route is here to stay,’ she added.

It’s very, very hard to bring in non-UK PhD students

Steve Howdle, University of Nottingham

Following the publication of the MAC report, the government announced that the graduate route would be ‘kept under review’. It also proposed a number of measures to further regulate the recruitment of international students including ‘cracking down on rogue recruitment agents’, tougher compliance standards for institutions recruiting overseas students, restrictions on remote delivery of coursework and raising the requirements on international students’ financial self-sufficiency.

Earlier this year, the government raised the salary threshold for skilled worker visas by 48% to £38,700. In certain circumstances, science graduates can obtain a skilled worker visa if their salary is over £30,960. However, this figure is 12% higher than the average starting salary of a chemistry graduate in the UK (£27,661).

PhD student shortage

Steve Howdle, head of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, takes issue with policies that have made it harder to bring researchers to the UK. ‘I’ve had a career of 30 years now. I’ve graduated 60 PhD students and helped in the development of around 20–25 postdoctoral researchers,’ he says. ‘And many of those have come from outside the UK into my group and helped me and UK plc to do new science and create new opportunities that have been very valuable. And what I see at the moment is that pathway has become incredibly more restricted – and I think that’s a really difficult thing to get our heads around.’

‘What we’re talking about here is highly-skilled scientists who come to the UK and contribute very positively,’ he adds.

According to Howdle restrictions on recruitment of international talent will make it harder for the UK to maintain its reputation as a global science leader. ‘At the moment, because of the visa situation, it’s very, very hard to bring in non-UK PhD students,’ he notes. ‘And so there is already a dearth of PhD students, we’re starting to see it’s more and more difficult to fill the roles to do [research]. The UK is positioned as punching above its weight in terms of research in the world – that’s going to be damaged if we carry on the way we’re going.’

In January a review conducted by accounting firm PwC on behalf of Universities UK highlighted that ‘increasing financial pressures’ on the UK higher education sector had led to an overreliance on international students to ‘cross-subsidise domestic teaching and research activities’. Howdle believes that making it harder for universities to recruit foreign students will create additional financial strain.

‘We all know that tuition fees are the main mode of funding into higher education and those tuition fees have not increased at all over the last decade … so universities have been pushed to take more overseas students who can and do pay higher fees,’ he says. ‘And that’s been the way that universities have stabilised and have run for the last decade – that’s all going to get very much harder.’

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Fallon Wolken

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