MAC recommends retaining
Graduate route in its
current form

On 14 May 2024, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published its rapid review of the UK’s Graduate visa route.

The review was commissioned by the Home Secretary in March this year, and forms part of the government’s five-point plan to reduce net migration. Among other areas, the MAC was asked to investigate any evidence of widespread abuse of the Graduate route and to analyse whether the post-study immigration route is undermining the integrity and quality of the UK’s higher education sector.

In the report’s accompanying letter to the Home Secretary, Chair of the MAC Professor Brian Bell responded: “We have not found evidence of widespread abuse on the Graduate route, where we define abuse as deliberate non-compliance with immigration rules, and we conclude that the route is not undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system.

However, we have reason to believe that some agents and subagents recruiting international students are mis-selling UK higher education and exploiting students in the process. We expect the impact on public finances of Graduate visa holders on the route to be small but positive, as most appear to work, are young, and have no recourse to public funds.”

The 70-page report provides new evidence on who is using the Graduate route and what they are doing whilst on the visa and sets out a series of recommendations to advise the government on the future of the route.

The MAC’s 3 recommendations

The committee’s rapid review concluded that based on its analysis, the Graduate route is broadly achieving the objectives set out by the Home Office, while also supporting government education policy as outlined in the International Education Strategy.

The MAC also provides three sets of recommendations for the Home Office to consider, as follows.

Retaining the Graduate route:

First and foremost, the committee recommends retaining the Graduate route in its current form and warns the government against implementing additional restrictions or closing the route entirely.

The MAC acknowledges that international student fees help make up the financial deficit that universities have from teaching domestic students and research, and warns that significant restrictions to the Graduate route should only be considered once the structural funding issues in the higher education sector have been addressed.

The report also points out that changes to the rules on student dependants which were implemented in January and are in effect a change to the dependant rules of the Graduate route, will likely have a significant impact on Graduate route usage going forward.

Whilst initial data suggests these changes are already substantially reducing international student numbers, the committee believes their full impact should be assessed before considering further changes.

Mandatory registration system for recruitment agents:

As part of its review, the MAC found some examples of bad practice from certain recruitment agents in providing misleading information to prospective international students.

The second recommendation is therefore for the government to establish a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents and subagents to help ensure that the quality of UK higher education is upheld, and students are protected from exploitation.

This recommendation goes on to suggest that that universities should be required to publish data on their spend on recruitment agents and the number of international students recruited through such means annually as a starting point to improving disclosure.

Data and monitoring:

Finally, the MAC has provided several recommendations on data and monitoring for the route and the wider immigration system which are outlined in the report.

The recommendations are:

  • That the government only opens new routes or makes significant policy changes when it has a plan for how it will collect and monitor data to assess the effectiveness of the route and understand wider impacts.
  • That the Home Office introduces a requirement for universities to provide it with confirmation of the course outcome (e.g. class of degree) on the Student route, in addition to confirmation that a course has been successfully completed which is currently required when an individual applies for a Graduate visa.
  • That the Home Office undertakes a review of the data variables used for analytical purposes across the largest visa routes (including the Skilled Worker route, Student route and Graduate route) to develop a clear definition of what these data represent, and the quality of each variable collected.
  • That the government explore and make further use of the HO/HMRC matched data.

Next steps

The Home Office will now review the MAC’s report and consider which recommendations, if any, it will take forward.

The government’s recent immigration policy changes send a clear message that it is taking action to cut net migration to the UK, and the Graduate route could be its next target.

However, the higher education sector has repeatedly warned against making drastic changes to the Graduate route as the sector is heavily reliant on the income that international students bring. The MAC report echoes this sentiment, cautioning: “We repeat the observation that we made in our last Annual Report that the government needs to consider the total impact of a policy change rather than simply its effect on net migration.”

For more information on the Graduate route, please speak to Smith Stone Walters.

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