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Heavy Blow Dealt to Universities' Plan to Boost International Students

on Friday, 21 September 2018.

Universities UK has called on the government to reintroduce an immigration category permitting international students to stay in the UK to work for up to two years after graduating.

However, those calls now seem likely to be ignored following a report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommending that the Home Office makes only minor amendments to the arrangements enabling students to remain in the UK after their studies and that a specific post-study work visa should not be reintroduced. 

Immigration categories permitting graduates to remain in the UK in order to work were in place in various guises between 2005 and 2012. Some of those schemes were limited in their scope, targeting graduates in certain fields (eg the Science and Engineering Graduate Scheme) or aimed at encouraging students to particular areas of the UK (eg the Fresh Talent: Working in Scotland Scheme). However, the International Graduate Scheme and its successor, Tier 1 (Post-Study Work), permitted international graduates in any field to remain in the UK for up to two years after their studies with permission to undertake any employment or self-employment. This flexibility led to many more graduates remaining in the UK after their studies, with many of those finding graduate roles or starting new businesses.

In April 2012, the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) visa was scrapped, with Theresa May, the Home Secretary at the time, claiming that up to 100,000 foreign students were failing to return home and that many graduates with leave in the Post-Study Work category were taking roles below graduate level. Whilst the claims of failed returns have since been discredited with recent immigration figures showing that 97% of students whose visas expired in 2018 "left on time", the MAC’s rejection of post-study work visas is based on evidence which suggests that graduates with full access to the labour market are more likely to take lower skilled work or work which is unrelated to their studies.

On the abolition of Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) concessions were made to the Tier 2 (General) scheme making sponsorship of international students after graduation slightly more straightforward. However, the short timescale within which graduates need to find a sponsoring employer and switch their immigration status after graduating (usually no more than 4 months) means that many international students end up leaving the UK having been unable to secure sponsorship even though they might have received a firm job offer. The MAC has recommended tweaks to these arrangements, but these do not go nearly far enough according to many HEIs.

It is widely believed that the absence of a specific post-study work visa puts UK universities at a disadvantage in the global competition to attract international students, particularly when compared with its biggest rivals such as the USA, Australia, France and Germany, whose international student numbers all continue to grow at a faster rate than the UK. International students are increasingly more sophisticated purchasers of higher education and look not just at the quality of the education they will receive and the lifestyle in the destination country, but also at how favourable the immigration regime is for them. Recent headlines concerning the UK's 'hostile environment' policies will no doubt put off many, as will the fact that countries such as the US, Canada and Australia all permit students to remain after their studies in order to work.

The category proposed by UUK, which it called the Global Graduate Talent Visa, would permit HEIs registered as Tier 4 sponsors to sponsor their graduates to search for and gain work experience in the UK for up to two years without restrictions on job level or salary and without a requirement for employer sponsorship. The suggestion of sponsorship of any kind goes further than the requirements of the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) visa, but this has clearly been suggested as a way of providing some comfort to the Home Office which no doubt will raise concerns about the scheme being open to abuse without sponsorship being in place. HEIs will be concerned of the risks to their existing Tier 4 licences in particular though should the Home Office not agree with UUK's suggestion that management of the licence for sponsoring graduates be kept separate from their Tier 4 licence.

The reintroduction of a post-study immigration route would certainly be welcomed by universities, international students and employers, and go some way to demonstrating that the UK is a welcoming country for "the brightest and the best" international students, particularly at a time when debate continues to rage about what the UK's future immigration system should look like. Unfortunately though, the MAC’s report, described by many as “a missed opportunity”, means that it now seems very unlikely that we will see a new post-study work visa any time soon.

For further information, please contact Tom Brett Young in our Immigration team on 0121 227 3759.

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