Last-ditch bid to save UK graduate visa as critics circle

Even a favourable MAC report may not relieve political pressure on government to act further on international student numbers, risking ‘enormous damage right across the sector’

May 9, 2024
A sign before a flooded road says 'Road closed'
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UK universities are staging a last-ditch battle to resist further changes in the rules governing international students, and stave off more financial damage to the sector, ahead of the release of a keenly anticipated report into the graduate visa route.

With the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) set to conclude its investigation into “abuses” in the post-study rights of overseas students by 14 May, critics have been pushing the government to take ever more drastic measures to bring down the number of international students, arguing for an overall cap and for some institutions to be prevented from sponsoring visas at all.

The sector has been warned to “brace for the worst” as a fraught political climate on immigration – exacerbated by poor local election results for the Conservative Party – has put pressure on Downing Street to take further action on the two-year graduate route, after removing the right for master’s students to bring dependants, which was blamed for a 44 per cent drop in January enrolments.

Options understood to be on the table include scrapping the visa entirely, reducing its duration to six months or a year, or placing extra conditions on its use, such as a salary threshold.

In an 11th-hour attempt to protect the visa, sector leaders have attempted to highlight the potential economic damage cuts would do to the whole country, not just universities.

Michael Spence, the president of UCL, said the government’s own analysis has shown the visa is “set to bring in £12.9 billion of additional tax revenue compared to £6.8 billion of extra fiscal costs between 2021-22 and 2030-31”.

“If we want to grow the economy and encourage global leadership and innovation, we need to continue to attract the brightest and the best,” Dr Spence told Times Higher Education, adding that it would be an “act of extraordinary national self-harm to curb the graduate route”.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the former universities minister, said any further changes “would set back so many important government policy priorities”, including ambitions to become a science superpower and to “level up” neglected regions.

“It’s hard to think of a policy more self-defeating. And all for what? To lower immigration statistics which international students shouldn’t be part of anyway,” he added.

In March, home secretary James Cleverly tasked the MAC, chaired by Brian Bell, professor of economics at King’s College London, with conducting a “rapid review” into the visa “to ensure the graduate route is not being abused” and check whether it was being used for immigration rather than education.

One of the policy’s biggest critics, Conservative MP Neil O’Brien, co-authored a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, published on 8 May, that calls for the visa to be scrapped along with the introduction of an overall cap on sponsored study routes and “substantial revisions” to the UK government’s target of attracting 600,000 international students a year.

Universities where there is “evidence of sustained abuse”, such as high dropout rates or low attendance, should be prevented from sponsoring visas at all, the report says.

Co-author Karl Williams, CPS’ research director, said Parliament needed to “take control” of the number of study visas issued, rather than “effectively leaving it up to the universities”.

Such interventions have increased the unease in the sector that even a favourable MAC report will not decrease political pressure on the government to act on international students before the next election.

Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said she was “confident” the body “will publish a considered, evidence-based report” and urged ministers “to consider the evidence of the impact of the graduate route on our economy and our global reputation in its response”.

But the short time frame given for the review “indicates there are a bunch of people who have made up their minds”, said Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK. “As much as I would like them to take account of the evidence that the MAC presents, I have a grim feeling that that is not where we are,” she said.

Ms Stern said the options for post-study work had been hotly debated within government for months and it was still unclear where ministers would land.

“It may be there is some attempt to limit the collateral damage done by wholesale removal of the graduate route,” Ms Stern said. “But I don’t see any of the options being floated not doing enormous damage right across the sector.”

She said that there had been a “dramatic cooling” in the international student market following the dependant changes, with more decreases in enrolment being predicted for September following the drop in January.

“I would like government to recognise they have already achieved what they need to achieve and if they go further, they are going to have a different problem of catapulting some universities into real financial difficulty very quickly, in places that can very ill afford to lose their university,” Ms Stern said.


Print headline: UK sector in last-ditch bid to preserve graduate visa 

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Reader's comments (2)

Poor overseas students: they are the low-hanging fruit that it is easy for the xenophobes to hit out at.
International students are the 'cash cow' and like most cash cows get treated really badly.