UK Home Office launches Graduate Route review

London: The UK Home Secretary James Cleverly officially triggered the government’s review of the post-study work rights Graduate Route this week.

In an 11 March letter to Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) Chair Brian Bell, Secretary Cleverly outlined the terms of reference for the review and requested that the MAC complete its work by 14 May 2024 – a deadline that provides for a window of roughly 10 weeks for the MAC to complete its work.

The review had previously been announced by the UK government and has been anticipated for some months. The Graduate Route launched in July 2021, and is “an unsponsored route which allows [foreign] students to stay for two years (or three years for PhD students) after graduation.” A recent analysis by Universities UK concluded that the expanded post-study work rights available under the Graduate Route helped to add more than 600,000 additional international enrolments and over €60 billion to the UK economy between 2019/20 and 2023/24.

“We want to understand whether [the Graduate Route] is meeting its wider objectives, including those of attracting and retaining the best and brightest students to the UK and supporting excellence in UK higher education,” said Secretary Cleverly. “We want to ensure the Graduate Route is not being abused. In particular, that some of the demand for study visas is not being driven more by a desire for immigration rather than education…An international student can spend relatively little on fees for a one-year course and gain access to two years with no job requirement on the Graduate route, followed by four years access to a discounted salary threshold on the Skilled Worker route. This means international graduates are able to access the UK labour market with salaries significantly below the requirement imposed on the majority of migrant skilled workers.”
The Home Secretary’s letter sets out the terms of reference for the review as well, namely that the process should consider:
“Any evidence of abuse of the route including the route not being fit for purpose.

Who is using the route and from what universities they graduated.

Demographics and trends for students accessing a study visa and subsequently accessing the UK labour market by means of the Graduate route.

What individuals do during and after their time on the graduate route and whether students who progress to the Graduate route are contributing to the economy.

Analysis of whether the Graduate route is undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system, including understanding how the Graduate route is or is not, effectively controlling for the quality of international students.”
MAC Chair Bell responded to the Secretary’s letter in writing on 12 March to agree that the committee would undertake the review. He also expressed his concern about the timeline anticipated for the review process: “[We] acknowledge your request to report back by 14th May 2024. We would note that the timescales for this review are much shorter than a normal commission. As such, this will substantially limit the quality and quantity of evidence that we can provide to answer the questions included in the commissioning letter. We will not be able to conduct a Call for Evidence given the timelines set by the government for this commission. We also note that it has taken longer for the government to commission us than we have been given to complete the review.”
Professor Bell requested that the Home Office urgently supply a range of data for use in the view, and that that data be delivered to the MAC by 26 March.

Universities UK has also weighed in on the question of the short window for the review. Universities UK International Director Jamie Arrowsmith said, “We are deeply concerned by the accelerated timetable, which appears to be driven by political – not policy – concerns. The government should give the MAC the time it needs to properly review the Graduate visa, allowing the committee to consider the full range of evidence and engage in meaningful consultation, rather than asking them to rush their response.”
Mr Arrowsmith’s statement also calls the government back to the original purposes of the Graduate Route, adding that, “It is important to recognise that the purpose of the Graduate Route is not primarily to address UK labour market shortages, but to enhance the competitiveness of the UK as a study destination. Post-study work matters for many international students, allowing those who have invested in our country the opportunity to find work and contribute to the UK economy.”