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Migration Advisory Committee recommends retaining UK’s Graduate visa route

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Introduction

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent body that advise the UK Government on migration issues, has recently published its rapid review of the Graduate route, which it was commissioned to undertake by the Home Secretary. In welcome news for the Higher Education sector, the Government has accepted the MAC’s overarching recommendation is that the route remains in place in its current form and found the route broadly achieved the objectives set by the Government. The Home Secretary, however, has stated that the Graduate route remains “subject to further review” and has announced proposals to tackle visa abuse within the Student route to ensure it is not used as a “gateway to immigration”.

What is the Graduate route?

Launched in July 2021, the Graduate route is an unsponsored visa route which allows overseas students to live and work in the UK for two years after successfully completing their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree at a UK university (up to three years for PhD students).

This allows students the opportunity to find work in the UK after the completion of their course. The MAC found that 50 per cent of Graduate visa holders subsequently applied to switch into a work visa or Student visa. The route has been very popular since it was introduced: 66,000 visas were granted in its first full year of operation in 2022, followed by 144,000 in 2023.

When the Graduate route was introduced, the Home Office said that the aim of the route was to “enhance the offer to international students who choose to study in the UK” and enable the UK to retain talent. This was also designed to ensure the UK remains internationally competitive in the Higher Education sector, as set out in the Government’s International Education Strategy, which set a target of 600,000 international students studying in the UK by 2030.

The Graduate route was, in some ways, a reintroduction of the old Post-Study Work route, which was operational in the UK between 2004 and 2012. The International Higher Education sector is a highly competitive market, and the MAC noted that students planning to study abroad “exhibit flexibility over country choice.” Other countries, such as Australia, Canada, Germany and the USA, also offer some form of a post-study work visa for graduates, which can be a factor in students choosing where to study.

The MAC Review

The MAC was asked to determine whether there was any evidence of abuse of the route, including whether the route was fit for purpose; examine demographics patterns and trends for those accessing the route; and analyse whether the route undermined the integrity and quality of the UK Higher Education system. The review was announced as part of the Government’s “five-point plan” in December 2023, which aimed to reduce net migration to the UK.

The MAC recommended that the Graduate route stays in place in its current form and urged the Government to consider the impact of further restricting or closing the route on the Higher Education sector:

“Under the current higher education funding model, closure or additional restrictions could put many universities at financial risk. There has been a substantial fall in the real value of domestic fees since their introduction and many HE providers are becoming increasingly reliant on international student fees as the business model to fund increasing losses on domestic student provision (driven primarily by inflation) and research.”

The MAC found that the route did not undermine the integrity or quality of the UK higher education system – rather, it helped UK universities to recoup financial losses on domestic students and research, and diversified the range of universities that benefit from the financial contribution that international students have on the sector.

In addition, the MAC did not find evidence of widespread immigration abuse (which they defined as deliberate non-compliance with Immigration Rules, and distinct from “instances where the route is used for permitted purposes that do not align with the Government’s intended policy objectives”).

The MAC’s recommendations

The MAC was, however, concerned about the exploitation of overseas students by some international recruitment agents and recommended greater transparency to avoid UK higher education being mis-sold to overseas students. The MAC advised, as a starting point, that universities should be required to publish data on how much they spend on agents and the number of students recruited through agents. In addition, the MAC recommends that the Government establishes a registration system for agents to meet quality control standards set out in the (currently voluntary) Agent Quality Framework.

The MAC also made several recommendations in relation to data and monitoring. They recommended that a requirement for universities to provide confirmation of the course outcome (eg class of degree), in addition to the current notification that a course has been successfully completed, to enable the UK to assess whether they are in fact retaining the most talented students.

They also recommended that the Government should only open new visa routes or make significant policy changes when it has a clear plan for how it will collect and monitor data to assess the effectiveness of the route against its objectives and understand wider impacts.

Impact on the Higher Education Sector

It’s worth noting that the numbers of student visas issued have fallen by 33 per cent this year, compared to last year’s figures, and enrolments in postgraduate taught courses have fallen by 40 per cent following the measures introduced earlier this year. Indeed, the MAC noted that restrictions to the Student route introduced in January 2024 have had a significant impact on student numbers already, which will in turn impact the numbers that feed into the Graduate route.

While the MAC’s recommendations are highly influential in shaping immigration policy, the Government is not obliged to accept these (although they have previously chosen to accept the majority of them). Although initial reports suggested that the Prime Minister intended to close the Graduate route in order to cut net migration figures, the Government has subsequently confirmed that it will keep the Graduate route in its current form, subject to further review.

The Home Secretary has, since the MAC published their report, announced new proposals in relation to the Student visa route, not the Graduate route, with a note to say that “the Government remains concerned that the [Graduate] route is not attracting the highest earners who contribute to our economy”. The proposed changes to the Student visa route include tougher measures in respect of the use of recruitment agents; stricter compliance standards for Student sponsors; reviewing and standardising English language assessments; and higher financial maintenance requirements for students. However, given that Parliament was prorogued on 24 May 2024 following the announcement of the UK General Election, it is unclear how much of this will be implemented.

If you have any questions about these developments, please contact a member of our Immigration Team.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2024

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About the authors

Adam Hoefel lawyer

Adam Hoefel

Senior Counsel

Adam has over 15 years’ experience advising on all aspects of the UK Immigration system, representing individuals in all categories of visa and permission to stay applications, as well advising businesses on their immigration strategy.

Adam has over 15 years’ experience advising on all aspects of the UK Immigration system, representing individuals in all categories of visa and permission to stay applications, as well advising businesses on their immigration strategy.

Email Adam +44 (0)20 3375 7522
Anjana Daniels immigration lawyer

Anjana Daniel

Associate

Anjana is a solicitor with over nine years’ experience in UK immigration, asylum, and nationality law.

Anjana is a solicitor with over nine years’ experience in UK immigration, asylum, and nationality law.

Email Anjana +44 (0)20 3375 7705

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