According to new research, some eight in 10 (72%) of those employed via the graduate route – announced under prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019 and rolled out for the first applicants in 2021 – are in graduate-level roles.
The AGCAS research, funded by UPP Foundation, delves into the experience of international graduates using UK post-study work opportunities.
The research found that 58% of international graduates believe their expectations of post-study work visas were being met while 18% were undecided. A further 24% said they did not think their expectations were being met.
It continues to warn that the UK “cannot be complacent” if it is to remain an attractive international study destination.
Home secretary Suella Braverman is said to be pressing back against international graduate work rights in a bid to reduce net migration to the UK.
On the release of the report, UPP Foundation director, Richard Brabner highlighted that, “To maintain our global competitiveness it is incumbent on the government to work with universities and employers to ensure the UK is an attractive place to study and work”.
In fact, the report suggested that ideally the length of the graduate route should be extended to compete with post-study work offerings from other international markets such as Australia. Maintaining the existing offer is the absolute minimum, it said.
Concerns have previously been raised that the two-year length (three years for PhD holders) may be putting employers off hiring international graduates.
“The UK risks losing out on talented graduates if these barriers are not addressed”
AGCAS also highlighted that most employers would need to pay additional costs if they want to retain employees on skilled worker visas, which the report says is an “unnecessary additional barrier to retaining talent”.
Other barriers beyond employer resistance and lack of knowledge include: the lack of information for graduates; visa application and recruitment cycle timings; lack of university and government support; cultural differences; issues with cost; and subject studied and employer differences.
However, 79% respondents did say they received support from their university careers service.
Respondents also raised concerns around living in the UK such as the country being unwelcoming to some international graduates and welfare issues – including housing, mental health, physical health, and financial concerns.
The report indicates that “behind every international graduate ‘success story’ were disheartening tales from graduates struggling to find UK employment”.
“If you talk to the company like the recruiters and stuff like that, they will say, ‘oh, you’re an international student. I’m sorry, we can’t take you’,” one respondent said during a focus group session.
“Even if you do discuss the Graduate visa option… they’re like, ‘I’m sorry’.”
Another detailed that they received “blanket rejections as soon as they found out that I was an immigrant”.
“Even if I didn’t need visa sponsorship, even if I was just applying for a position for six months and my visa allows me to work for two years, I just get flat out no’s,” they said.
The paper also called for a “cross-government campaign to enhance employers’ understanding and awareness of the Graduate and Skilled Worker immigration routes”.
Sector stakeholders have long emphasised the need to promote the opportunity to UK employers, with a recent survey of 656 employers finding that over a quarter were not actually aware of the route. Only 3% were actively using the initiative.
“International graduates are ready to offer their talent, time, commitment and international knowledge to the UK economy, but many are facing barriers to employment based on their visa status,” Elaine Boyes, AGCAS executive director, said in a statement.
“The UK risks losing out on talented graduates if these barriers are not addressed. It is clear that collective effort is needed if the UK is to retain its competitive edge.”
“We must hear the stories from international students and graduates, and educate employers”
The June 2022 survey drew 345 responses from graduates of over 50 UK universities from 77 countries, while November 2022 focus groups added to the findings.
“We must hear [international students’ and graduates’] stories, and educate employers to enhance their recruitment practices, to support positive change for international students and graduates,” Boyes added.
The report also reiterated that the decision to stop calling international graduates as part of the Graduate Outcomes survey “has led to a significant decline in response rates and a diminishing evidence base at a time where the need to demonstrate return on investment to prospective international students has never been greater”.
Policy and research manager at AGCAS, Florence Reedy, wrote in Wonkhe that “when the graduate route works, it works for everyone”.
“We saw examples of SMEs, multinationals, charities and public sector organisations all using the graduate route to recruit international graduates,” she said.
“We must do what we can now to avoid jeopardising the early success of the graduate route.”