In March 2024, Home Secretary James Cleverly requested that the Migration Advisory Committee (the MAC) carry out a review into the Graduate route. The visa permits international students to work in any role once they have successfully completed their undergraduate or master’s studies at a UK university. Introduced in 2021, the route was intended to make the UK more attractive to students and retain talent which would then contribute to the UK economy. However, the UK government announced that it would review the route and any potential abuse of the route, as part of its five-point plan to reduce net migration. On 14 May, the MAC released their findings and have recommended that the route remains in place in its current form.

What did the MAC find?

In the three years since the route has been in place, the number of Graduate visas granted has increased substantially year by year, with 144,000 Graduate and dependent visas being granted in 2023. The Home Secretary voiced concerns regarding those numbers and the risk of abuse of the route by those who choose to remain in the UK on a Graduate visa following the completion of their studies.

In regard to the number of visas granted, the MAC state that other policy measures introduced to curb migration numbers will have a knock-on effect on the Graduate route and as such numbers will fall organically. One such change likely to impact visa numbers is that since January 2024 students are no longer permitted to bring dependents. This will lead to a fall in student visa applications and, in turn, the number of Graduate visas. Interestingly, the MAC commented that deposits for courses beginning in September 2024 are down when compared to data from previous years. Therefore, uptake in the visa in its current form is predicted to fall in the coming years.

Another policy change that will impact a large number of those on Graduate visas is the increase in the skilled worker salary thresholds which came into force on 4 April 2024. These changes have priced out many roles from skilled worker sponsorship. As such, employers are concerned that many currently employed on Graduate visas will not qualify for sponsorship due to the substantial hikes. According to data presented by the MAC, 61% of those on Graduate visas that switch into the Skilled Worker route, earned £30,000 or less. Therefore, they may not be eligible for sponsorship given the drastic increase in salary thresholds across the immigration rules. It remains to be seen if this will dissuade students from seeking graduate visas in the first place.

One key concern of the Government was that too many of those in the Graduate route, were switching to the Skilled Worker route as Health and Social Care workers who are eligible for a lower salary threshold. The MAC has categorically stated they don’t find this to be true and instead, there are more of those on the Student route who switch into the Health and Social Care route directly once they have completed their studies.

In addition, the MAC found that there is little evidence of non-compliance with the immigration rules which is in part due to the limited conditions place on those on the route. Those on the Graduate route are afforded a fair amount of flexibility as they are permitted to work in any role and are not required to evidence employment in order to be granted a visa. This is what makes the route so attractive to individuals who are looking to start their career, as well as for employers, who are able to employ individuals for 2 to 3 years (depending on whether the applicant has a PhD) before committing to sponsorship.

What did the MAC recommend?

  • The MAC recommended that the Government keep the Graduate route in its current form, which will be of some relief to employers and students. The concern is that removing the route will discourage international students from coming to the UK to study which will have an impact both universities and businesses who rely heavily on those individuals. Net migration is predicted to fall given that there have been a number of restrictions on dependent visas brought in by the current government targeting health and social care workers as well as students.
  • The MAC has stressed the importance of considering the financial impact on both universities and businesses before amending or revoking the route which has proven to be a driving factor for migrant students coming to the UK. Further, restricting or closing the graduate route could impact the levelling up agenda, given the reliance of regional economies upon universities. However, the MAC did recommend greater collaboration between government and higher education, to better integrate international graduates into priority occupations and sectors.
  • Amid concerns that some international recruitment agents and sub-agents are providing misleading information about UK higher education to prospective students, the MAC recommends universities are required to publish data on their spend on agents and the number of students recruited through them annually. Further, it recommends that a mandatory registration system is established for agents.
  • The MAC has encouraged the Government to set out a clear plan before making any further significant policy changes, especially given the sheer number of changes that have occurred in recent months. Further, the full impact of recent changes should be assessed before further changes are considered.

Is the route safe?

Whether the Government intends to accept the MAC’s recommendations and maintain the Graduate route is yet to be seen. In a general election year there remains a firm focus on reducing net migration.

In a survey conducted by the Home Office, 73% of participants confirmed that the availability of the Graduate route encouraged them to choose the UK as their place of study. If abolished, many students would reconsider whether they wished to study at a UK university. Further, universities have voiced concerns that, if the route were to be abolished, their funding would drop significantly due to fewer international students wishing to study in the UK. Businesses are concerned that they will be unable to recruit for graduate programmes as more individuals will require sponsorship, removing the “try before you buy” benefit of the visa.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at May 2024. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms and conditions.

Date published

16 May 2024

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