“We need to be vocal about the importance of [the route] to enable the UK to stay competitive within this sector,” managing directorKaplan International Pathways, Linda Cowan, said at a webinar organised by HEPI and Kaplan.
A recent report has warned that a lack of awareness among UK employers of the graduate route could be hampering the success of the initiative. Only 3% of the 656 employers surveyed said they were using the route to employ staff, while a quarter of employers were not actually aware of the initiative.
“There is actually now a huge amount of information around the graduate route”
A number of panellists at the webinar pointed to practical guides for employers that stakeholders can promote to businesses. The International Student Employability Group, chaired by UKCISA, has a published guide for employers, in addition to a useful factsheet.
“There is actually now a huge amount of information for international students and for companies around the graduate route,” Cowan said. But the next step is how to ensure “we land that well with employers”.
Senior policy advisor for Sustainability, Skills, and Employment at Institute of Directors, Alex Hall-Chen, reminded that many SMEs don’t have HR functions or dedicated departments and “won’t have a familiarity with all visas”.
There is definitely opportunity among SME employers, Stephen Isherwood from Institute of Student Employers, agreed.
“[They] really don’t understand the graduate route, don’t know actually the fact that it is process light, [but] do have immediate skill needs,” he said.
Education providers can also help students to help themselves, Cowan suggested.
“We’ve got a huge role as education providers around how we help students to be more vocal with employers when they’re applying for jobs on the ease of the graduate route,” she said.
“Actually international students could play a huge role when they’re speaking to employers.”
“Applicants can indicate that they don’t currently have the right to work in the UK but they can very easily get that at no expense or bureaucracy to the employer, as those two are the main concerns [for employers],” Hall-Chen agreed.
Extend beyond two-years
Cowan warned that some sectors will find the two-year visa, rather than three-year, is “a disadvantage”.
“For certain sectors, and particularly STEM, us continuing to work with the government to see whether there’s a possibility for a three-year graduate route, I think would be enormously helpful,” she said
Moderator of the session, director of HEPI Nick Hillman, highlighted that former UK universities minister, Jo Johnson, has previously called for the route to be extended to four years.
PhD students are currently the only ones eligible for a three-year graduate route.
From an employer’s perspective, Isherwood highlighted that graduate employment schemes tend to last over four years.
“Employers are nervous about hiring people when there’s only a two-year timeframe. What they don’t want to is get to that two-year point to find that actually that visa can’t be secured,” the chief executive said.
ISE, a body that helped to campaign to get the graduate visa really reinstalled, has seen its members opt for the skilled visa route over the graduate route, he continued, especially when it comes to graduate employment schemes or further professional qualifications.
The graduate route is used when employers have short-term problems, he continued.
“One of the challenges for [most of] our members, running [graduate] programs, is they tend to start their hiring in the autumn. Actually they’ve often said getting international students through the visa process in time to start can be a real challenge…
“Some of our employers do use that graduate visa route when they need to step people into their organisation pretty quickly. They might hire them on a temporary contract initially while that gets sorted out.”
It is also unclear whether IoD members are aware that they can switch from graduate to skilled worker visa, Hall-Chen highlighted.
“[In our research], we didn’t have an opportunity to ask about the awareness of the ability to switch visas. I would say just generally employer awareness of all of these schemes is low, so I would assume that understanding of being able to switch from one to another course would be low.”
Hall-Chen added that the IoD would “certainly support any moves that would make it even more useful for employers”.
“Demand from employers is there”
“If that means extending it to three for all international students, not just those who’ve got PhDs, that would be a positive development,” she said.
“There’s still a chance we can get it to three years if we focus on the aspect of the skills shortage in the UK,” Cowan added.
One audience member also raised the potential issue of miss-selling the UK experience and over-promising prospective students on what they can expect from the graduate visa route.
Cowan pointed to Isherwood’s statistic that at the end of 2022, 9% of graduate vacancies had still gone unfilled, while Hall-Chen noted that IoD’s research found only 20% of employers said they wouldn’t consider using a graduate visa.
“Demand from employers is there,” Hall-Chen said, “but what isn’t always there is employer understanding of the various visa routes.”
Isherwood added that, however, the initiative had been led by the higher education sector with a view to increase international student recruitment.
“The strong growth and input into the economy [international students bring] actually that means that the conversation is often not being driven by employer demand necessarily, it’s not as if it’s the labour market saying, ‘we need these students, let’s bring them into the country’,” he said.
“It’s being driven by universities increasing their intake, so that connection gets lost between the labour markets.
“I think that is where this danger of miss-selling does come into it.”
Employers are under pressure from universities to offer employment opportunities to a range of cohorts.
“Imagine you’re an employer sat in front of a careers team at a university and that university saying, ‘What about the WP students? What about our ethnic diversity students? What about international students? Are you hiring them?’
“The employer goes, ‘I’m getting 20,000 or 30,000 applications every year for 500 vacancies. Some people are going to get through and some people aren’t’. I think a bit of candour around that side of the equation would help increase understanding on both sides.”