No widespread abuse of UK graduate visa scheme, Home Office report finds

The UK’s graduate visa scheme is not being widely abused and should remain in place, a Home Office commissioned report has found.

An independent committee was asked to look into the visa route after home secretary James Cleverly questioned whether it was “undermining the integrity and quality” of the UK’s higher education system.

He wanted to ensure the route was “not being abused” and that demand for study visas was “not being driven more by a desire for immigration rather than education”.

The independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has now found no evidence of “significant abuse” of the route, which allows international students to stay in the UK for two or three years after graduation.

The MAC review concluded that the graduate route is “not undermining the integrity of and quality of the UK higher education system” and is helping universities to make up for financial losses on domestic students and research through income from international tuition fees.

University leaders have called on ministers to end the “toxic” uncertainty over the future of the graduate route by announcing there will be no changes.

There has been a ‘large increase’ in the number of graduate visas granted since the route’s introduction in July 2021 (PA)
There has been a ‘large increase’ in the number of graduate visas granted since the route’s introduction in July 2021 (PA)

The migration advisors warned that universities would have to cut courses if the government decided to scrap the post-study visa, which allows graduates to stay in the UK for a few years after completing their studies.

Mr Cleverly has come under pressure from some Tories to curb the graduate visa route. Last week former immigration minister Robert Jenrick published a report that called for the visa to be abolished.

The report published with the Centre for Policy Studies said that graduate visas “have allowed people to come and work in the gig economy and on very low wages”, and claimed there had been “widespread abuse” of this route.

Data published alongside the MAC review showed that the median annual earnings of the 73 percent of graduates, who were in employment for at least one month in the year 2022/23, was £17,815. For the 27 per cent who were in employment across the entire year, this was £26,460.

Responding to the report, Mr Jenrick said the “huge increases” in people on graduate visas “are concentrated in lower ranked unis”, adding: “This route isn’t attracting top talent.” He slammed the report as a “whitewash”, saying that the “conclusions have clearly been constrained by the narrow terms of reference deliberately set by the government.”

The MAC review said it was concerned about “potential exploitation” of international students due to poor practices by some agents recruiting people overseas who may be “mis-selling UK higher education”, but it stressed this is a separate issue from abuse of the graduate route.

There has been a “large increase” in the number of graduate visas granted since the route’s introduction in July 2021, the report found.

In 2023, 114,000 visas were granted for main applicants, with a further 30,000 for dependants, according to the MAC.

Take-up of the visas is largely concentrated among four nationalities - India, Nigeria, China and Pakistan - which account for 70 per cent of graduate visas, with India accounting for over 40 per cent.

Graduate visa holders are initially “overrepresented in lower-paid work”, but their outcomes improve over time, the report said.

The MAC review was unable to assess the risk of overstaying due to a lack of Home Office data.

Home secretary James Cleverly commissioned the review to make sure the graduate visa route was ‘not being abused’ (PA)
Home secretary James Cleverly commissioned the review to make sure the graduate visa route was ‘not being abused’ (PA)

The report warned: “The potential poor practice by some agents recruiting international students does risk undermining the integrity of higher education in the UK.”

In February, Universities UK said it would review international student admissions processes following the allegations of “bad practice” by agents recruiting overseas students.

The MAC has recommended that 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.

Professor Brian Bell, chairman of the MAC, said: “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.”

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “The MAC’s recommendation that the graduate route should remain on its current terms is extremely important and welcome.

“The uncertainty caused by the decision to review the visa has been toxic.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents some of the most selective institutions in the UK, said: “We recognise concerns around the behaviour of some agents and we would support targeted measures to address this.

“However, the overall message from the MAC is that the graduate route is achieving its objectives as set out by the government.

“We would therefore urge ministers to end the uncertainty and confirm as soon as possible that the route will continue in its entirety.”

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 per cent 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.”