International Students-Not A Harm to UK Economy, Says MAC

The recent speculation among UK Government officials led to stricter visa rules for foreign students to lower the nation’s immigration numbers. In the previous days, the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated  “Immigration is too high. Today we’re taking radical action to bring it down. These steps will make sure that immigration always benefits the UK.”

The government outlined plans to review the Graduate Route Visa to safeguard the integrity of UK higher education, signaling a potential crackdown on dependents in that post-study route. Additionally, the government aimed to reform the entry process for people in short-staffed sectors, eliminating the 20% discount on the minimum salary for shortage occupation visas and reviewing the types of jobs on the Shortage Occupation List. Ultimately, the universities in the UK witnessed a  significant drop in applications from international students owing to the uncertainty over the graduate visa programme that allows graduates to work in the UK after studies.

The British government stopped giving out dependent cards for students in January 2023. This means that foreign students can’t bring family members to the UK anymore. Students in a research course, like a PhD or postdoctoral studies, are the only ones who don’t have to follow this rule. It got so bad that foreign care workers couldn’t even bring their partners and kids into the country in March 2023. Because of the new visa rules, foreign students could not go from being students to working before they finished their studies.  

The UK government, hence, took a call on the graduate visa programme and formed an independent committee named Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in order to make thorough findings over the potential risks of international students through the graduation visa route and review the post-study work visa. In February, Universities UK (UUK) said it would review international student admissions processes after the allegations of “bad practice” by agents recruiting overseas students.

The independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) focused on the Graduate Route visa, allowing international students to stay for up to two years after their studies to seek employment and gain experience. According to a report, in 2023, a total of 114,000 Graduate route visas were granted to main applicants, with an additional 30,000 visas granted for dependents. The utilization of the Graduate route is primarily concentrated among four nationalities: India, Nigeria, China, and Pakistan. These top four countries collectively represent 70% of all Graduate visas, with India alone contributing over 40%.

After the review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) as ordered by the UK’s Home Secretary James Cleverly, the rapid review is given just in two months and reported today on 14 May, 2024, that “no evidence of widespread abuse specifically for the Graduate Route” and concluded that the graduate work visas were “not undermining the integrity of and quality of the UK higher education system”.

MAC Chair Professor Brian Bell emphasized the importance of this route in sustaining universities financially, especially amidst losses incurred from teaching domestic students and conducting research. The committee chair stated “Our review recommends the graduate route should remain as it is, and is not undermining the quality and integrity of the UK’s higher education system. “The graduate route is a key part of the offer that we make to international students to come and study in the UK. The fees that these students pay helps universities to cover the losses they make in teaching British students and doing research. Without those students, many universities would need to shrink and less research would be done.”

MAC Chair Professor Brian Bell

What the committee stated:

  • For the college method in particular, there is no proof of widespread abuse. Because the path only has a few conditions, the chances of abuse are not very high.
  • There are worries that both student and graduate visa holders may be taken advantage of by dishonest agents who help students get into classes and may be lying about UK higher education. However, this is not the same thing as breaking the rules for the graduate way.
  • In 2023, 114,000 graduate route cards were given to main applicants, and an extra 30,000 were given to people with dependents. 
  • Four countries are most likely to use the graduate route: India, Nigeria, China, and Pakistan. Together, they get 70% of all graduate visas, with India getting more than 40%.
  • Most people on the graduate route had completed postgraduate courses, with the highest growth in the visa from non-Russell Group universities’ postgraduate courses – accounting for 66% of all graduate visas.

The MAC has recommended the government should establish a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents, and universities should be required to publish data on their use of agents to “help protect the integrity” of the UK higher education system.

But the UK government hasn’t said yet if it agrees with the advice not to mess with the Graduate Route. However, a government spokesperson said: “We are committed to attracting the best and brightest to study at our world-class universities, whilst preventing abuse of our immigration system, which is why the home secretary commissioned an independent review of the graduate route.

“We have already taken decisive action to address unsustainable levels of migration and our plans are working, with a 24% drop in visa applications across key routes in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year. “We are considering the review’s findings very closely and we will respond fully in due course.”

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