Plans to sharply reduce UK immigration by changing graduate visa rules have been criticised by education and business figures.
In response to the significant rise in net immigration revealed in ONS figures late last year, prime minister Rishi Sunak has asked the Home Office and Department for Education (DfE) to come up with measures to curb the numbers.
According to The Times, the home secretary Suella Braverman has drawn up a plan to reform the graduate visa route so that graduates would have to leave the UK if they did not get a skilled job within six months of leaving university. Currently, graduates can stay in the UK while looking for jobs and gaining work experience for up to two years (without a specific job offer).
The Times claims the DfE is attempting to block the changes as they fear it would harm the UK’s attractiveness to international students, with officials warning the changes could harm universities and undermine growth.
A government source who backs Braverman’s plan said the graduate visa was being increasingly used by students on short courses at “less respectable universities” and was being used as a “backdoor immigration route”.
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The DfE, however, argues that the two-year graduate visa was aligned with most of Britain’s main competitors, with only the US offering a one-year visa.
Between June 2021 and June 2022 the largest contingent of immigrants consisted of students with 476,000 graduate visas.
According to Higher Education Student Statistics, China sent more students to the UK than any other overseas country. In 2021/22, 27% of all non-EU students were from China, with the number of students from China increasing by 44,475 or 41% between 2017 and 2022. But there has been a sharp rise in students from India with an increase of 106,200 over the five-year period. Students from India represent 23% of all non-EU enrolments in 2021/22.
Figures published last week showed there were 680,000 foreign students in the UK. The government’s 2019 Higher Education Strategy included a target of 600,000 students by 2030.
Another proposal being considered would reportedly allow foreign students to bring dependent family members with them only if they were on postgraduate research-based courses such as a PhD, or postgraduate courses that were at least two years’ long.
The UK Home Office refused to comment on the leak, but a government spokesperson said: “Our points-based system is designed to be flexible according to the UK’s needs, including attracting top-class talent from across the world to contribute to the UK’s excellent academic reputation and to help keep our universities competitive on the world stage.”
Vivienne Stern of Universities UK said the move would be “an act of economic self-harm” given that foreign students bring about £26bn a year to the UK in fees and spending.
Jamie Arrowsmith of Universities UK questioned calls for “blunt bans” on postgraduate students bringing dependents to the UK, warning that it could “adversely affect the UK’s reputation, our economy, and our relationships with key partners such as India and Nigeria.”
Immigration expert Chetal Patel at City law firm Bates Wells said that if the UK wanted to remain competitive and attract and retain the brightest and the best, the immigration policy should reflect that. “Some of these suggested proposals simply don’t do that,” she said.
She added: “Slashing graduate visa leave to six months from the current two years will not only mean fewer international students are drawn to the UK but it will also hinder growth in our UK economy. That’s not a place we want to be in when other jurisdictions across the world such as the US and Canada are actively looking at ways to attract international students. Having six months to then switch to another route, such as the Skilled Worker isn’t enough.
“The current graduate visa framework affords flexibility to both individuals and employers. Two years on an unsponsored route with free access to the labour market is hugely beneficial. We’ve seen many employers recently consider whether to go down the costly sponsorship route straightaway or simply hire an individual on initially a graduate visa, embed them within their organisation and then consider future plans which may (or may not) include sponsorship.”
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