Speakers agreed that the visa route was an attractive opportunity for prospective international students and its reintroduction had been a factor in the country reaching its 600,000 target 10 years ahead of schedule. However, concerns around cost and employers awareness of the route were raised.
“The costs are very prohibitive,” said Simran Harichand, a graduate working at digital marketing agency Hallam. “For international students who already pay higher tuition fees, and can only work 20 hours a week during term time, the expectation for them to have £2,000 to spare the minute they graduate is a bit high.”
There is also no guarantee of a job after gaining the visa, Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of UKCISA, highlighted.
Employers don’t “completely understand” the visa route, Harichand suggested. “We are seen as students who expire in two years.”
Employers still insist job applicants have the permanent right to work in the UK even for temporary roles, Teresa Corcoran, member of the AGCAS Internationalisation Task Group and postgraduate careers consultant at Nottingham University Business School, added. “Many employers are reluctant to accept the graduate visa as a valid right to work,” she said.
Corcoran also noted a case where a student applied to two locations with the same organisation, being accepted for a role in Portsmouth but not in Mansfield. “I think a lot of the employers are fearful of taking international graduates on because they are scared of breaching the regulations,” she said.
Differences between the skilled worker visa, costing around £4,000 in total, and the more flexible graduate route should be better explained to students, University of Glasgow graduate Siqi Jia proposed. Jia is on the sponsored skilled worker visa.
“Once I enter the UK job market, I need to stick with my employer. And even if I don’t like that job or find it’s too difficult, I would not be able to switch my visa to graduate route, which is quite scary,” she said.
The graduate route visa does not require students to meet certain salary thresholds, allows for self-employment, is without sector restrictions and students can switch between employers. The different visa routes can also affect costs that employers face if hiring international graduates.
For workers on the graduate route, employers would be subject to an annual £1,000 payment per graduate if they want to sponsor them on a skilled worker visa when the graduate visa runs out after two years.
“At a government level, more needs to be done to promote it to employers”
“However, if they took them directly from the student visa onto that same skilled working visa, they wouldn’t have to pay those costs,” Corcoran said. “It really would cause a barrier for any graduates trying to get from the graduate visa into permanent employment.” The sector has lobbied the Home Office “quite strongly” on the charge, UKCISA’s Graham added.
More promotion of the route at a government level would benefit the success of the scheme, stakeholders suggested.
“Institutions are doing great work to promote the route but at a government level, more needs to be done to promote it to employers,” Graham said. “Employers are looking for guidance and reassurance about the route from from government itself.”
Promotion of the route from UKVI to employers would be “really welcome”, Corcoran concurred.
“I think what you’ve got with employers is a tension between the desire to employ international graduates, but then the perceived compliance risks around it,” UUKi’s head of global mobility, Charley Robinson, said.
“We could really use more support from government in communicating both benefits and guidelines around the graduate route and skilled worker routes to employers to make sure that that’s clearer.”
Between July 21 to December 2021, there were 28,700 visa extensions granted under the new graduate category, she noted. Updated Home Office statistics are expected on May 26.
Karen Blackney, from the University of East Anglia and BUILA, noted the increase in Indian students the institution had seen since the reintroduction of the route. “Certainly at UEA for postgraduate students, last year was the first year that India took over China,” she said.
“[But] it’s not just about recruitment, which obviously is incredibly important, but it’s reputation… Student experience is key and this is part of the experience. And if we don’t get it right, then it will impact. There’s no question about it.”
The positive impact on recruitment can change, Graham agreed.
“The competitive advantage is being eroded away”
“If students start to talk about how they don’t get jobs on the graduate visa because employees aren’t employing them, that will get back very quickly to recruitment markets.
“It’s in the government’s interest to be promoting this visa as part of this portfolio and really helping employers understand it.”
The biggest challenge the UK faces, according to Bobby Mehta, BUILA chair and associate pro vice-chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Portsmouth, is what other competitor countries are doing. “You’ve got Australia moving from two to three years, you’ve got New Zealand looking at reforms… making it easier to move from one visa to another,” he noted.
The UAE is offering graduates golden visas of 10 years, and Canada is “looking to make their space more competitive”. “We can’t sit back and relax,” he said.
Setting a new target for international student numbers would “outline the UK’s intentions and send a clear message to future students”. A 1,000,000 target by 2030, as proposed by Lord Bilimoria earlier this year, could be a viable aim.
“The competitive advantage is being eroded away. Whilst we are reviewing what’s been successful here, other countries are looking at what the UK has done and moving ahead,” Mehta concluded.
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