UK graduate route attracting “low-wage” migrants – Migration Advisory Committee
The UK’s graduate route is attracting low-wage migrants, rather than “global talent”, according to the Migration Advisory Committee, which is set to review the visa scheme.
In its annual report published in December, the committee said it was “sceptical” that the post-study visa, introduced in 2021 to allow all international students to stay and work for two years, is helping to attract high-skilled workers to the UK.
The government has asked the MAC to review the visa to “prevent abuse” and this latest report is likely to add to concerns from universities that the route could be significantly reduced or even scrapped.
The committee originally opposed the creation of the graduate route when discussions began in 2018 due to fears about the type of student it would attract and now, it argues, data is suggesting these concerns may have been realised.
So far, 176,000 students have been accepted through the graduate route, with a further 37,000 dependants.
Although there is limited information available about how much those on the graduate route earn, in the years since the visa was introduced, the demographics of international students have changed, with significant growth from Indian and Nigerians and a surge in those bringing dependants.
“The rise in student numbers is almost entirely focused on taught master’s degrees, and the growth has been fastest in less selective and lower cost universities,” the committee wrote.
The visa has also been more popular than the government predicted. While 2021/22 numbers were broadly in line with the government’s central estimate for route applications, 2022/23 numbers have already exceeded the upper estimate, according to MAC.
In 2022, the UK hit its target of hosting 600,000 international students a decade earlier than hope – the MAC is clear that it believes this was due to the attraction of the graduate route.
The committee added that the cost-benefit of enrolling in a degree has “changed substantially”, calculating that an international master’s student with an adult dependant could earn in the region of £115,000 on the minimum wage during the course of their 3 years in the UK, and pay as little as £5,000 for a degree.
This does not account for additional costs associated with moving to the UK, such as accommodation, visas fees and the NHS surcharge.
Universities UK International defended the route, saying it has “helped the UK to regain our position as the second most popular study destination for globally mobile students, and this underpins a huge economic contribution”.
Research has shown that international students contributed almost £42 billion to the British economy in 2021/22.
“The graduate route visa is central to both government and sector strategies to diversify the pipeline for international student recruitment and help distribute the benefits of international students across the full diversity of the UK’s excellent universities,” a spokesperson from UUKi said.
They added that international students also support the financial sustainability of British universities as many face funding shortfalls.
Last week, both Coventry and Sheffield Hallam universities announced mass job cuts, blaming domestic tuition fee freezes and lower-than-expected student intakes in autumn 2023. Multiple British universities are expecting declines in enrolments for January 2024, with some blaming curbs on allowing international students to bring dependants.
The MAC concluded that the government needs to decide on the purpose of the route, saying that if it is intended to increase international student numbers in the UK then it has been a “resounding success”.
However, “if the objective is to attract talented students who will subsequently work in high-skilled graduate jobs, then we are sceptical that it adds much to the Skilled Worker route which was already available,” the report said.
UUKi said students and universities need “stability and certainty”.
“Government must continue to reassure prospective international students that the UK remains open, and that the graduate route is here to stay,” a spokesperson said.