MAC States 'UK Graduate Route' Should Be Retained

Paragon Law's summary of the Migration Advisory Committee's (MAC) rapid review and conclusions on the UK graduate and Skilled Worker route visas.

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What Is The UK Graduate Visa Route?

The UK Graduate visa route allows international students who have completed a degree level course or higher to remain in the UK for up to 2-years (3-years if they have qualified with a PhD) to look for employment or take on employment without the need to be sponsored. There is no requirement that the job on offer must be related to the student's course of study. In order to remain in the UK after the Graduate route, the student must meet the requirements of another work visa, for example, have an offer of sponsorship by a UK company that has a sponsor licence, allowing the student to switch to the Skilled Worker visa.

Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) Recommendations To The UK Government 

Overall, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommend that the route remains in place in its current form.

In summary, they note the following:

  • We found no evidence of any significant abuse of the Graduate route However, we do have concerns over the use of recruitment agents by universities in certain markets in providing misleading information to prospective international students.
  • The limits (In July 2023) on international students being able to sponsor dependents is also a restriction to the Graduate route [and] will mechanically reduce the number of graduate visas the change in the policy on dependents has already substantially contributed to reduced international student recruitment beyond this for September 2024… Any additional restrictions on the Graduate route will likely further exacerbate the decline in international student numbers.
  • As in social care, it is the failure to properly fund the sector that has led to an increasing over-reliance on immigration… any policy change to the Graduate route intended to reduce student numbers would need to explain how the financial consequences for the sector would be addressed.



What Did The UK Government Commission MAC To Explore?

The UK Government commissioned the MAC to explore the following 5 points:

  1. Any evidence of abuse of the route including the route not being fit for purpose; and
  2. Who is using the route and from what universities they graduated
  3. Demographics and trends for students accessing a study visa and subsequently accessing the UK labour market by means of the Graduate route; and
  4. What individuals do during and after their time on the Graduate route and whether students who progress to the Graduate route are contributing to the economy; and
  5. Analysis of whether the Graduate route is undermining the integrity and quality of the UK Higher Education system. This includes an understanding of how the Graduate route is or is not effectively controlling the quality of international students, such that it is genuinely supporting the UK to attract and retain “the brightest and best”, contributing to economic growth, and benefiting British higher education and soft power – in the context of the government’s wider International Education Strategy.


MAC Found The Following For Each Point:

1. Abuse

*note we define abuse of the Graduate route as deliberate non-compliance with the terms of the route.

- For example, the high number of individuals using the Graduate route, or the type of work they do while on the route, are matters concerning whether the route is fit for purpose in achieving government objectives. Whilst we have considered these matters elsewhere in the report, we do not regard them as abuse.

- Evidence from UKVI, alongside insights gathered through our round-tables, indicates that levels of abuse on the Graduate route are very low. This is partly because of the limited number of conditions attached to the route and the fact that a limited cohort of Graduate visas have expired, given the route was introduced in 2021.

- Since the inception of this route there have been 214,900 main applicants and only 1,700 of those have been refused… UKVI note that they are not aware of any widespread falsification of information to qualify for the Graduate route… Given that the first cohorts of those on the Graduate route have only recently come to the end of their visa duration, there is little evidence available on the numbers who are overstaying their visa length… a small number of individuals are using the Graduate route to extend their time in the UK beyond the usual time-frame.

- We recognise that agents play an important role in the UK HE sector, and an inability to use agents would leave the sector at a distinct disadvantage to international competitors. However, the topic of poor practice by some agents, at Student visa stage, has been a recurring theme in our review.

Conclusion - We have not found evidence of widespread abuse specifically for the Graduate route… We are concerned about potential exploitation of both Student and Graduate visa holders due to poor practices by certain agents and sub-agents who recruit students onto courses and may be mis-selling UK higher education.


2. Who uses the route

- Age profile of the route has also changed since introduction. Since 2021, the proportion of main applicants aged over 25 has increased by approximately 15 percentage points.

- Since July 2021, the dependant ratio for the Graduate route has increased from 0.1 (on average 1 dependant for every 10 main applicants) to 0.3 in 2023 before the dependant rule changes came in, with children as a share of total dependants increasing by 13 percentage points to 36% over the same period.

- Most common nationalities using the route are India (42%); Nigeria (11%); China (10%); Pakistan (7%); USA (4%)… Given the higher dependancy ratio for India and Nigeria compared to China, the ban on student dependants will likely have a larger impact on institutions outside of the top 200 if students with dependants decide not to come as a result of the policy.

- Their conclusion summarises the above points.


3. Demographics and trends

- Their conclusions summarise the above points.


4. Use of the Graduate route during and post-study

- The Graduate visa holders interviewed often reported that they were not in jobs which related to their course of study, preferred longer-term career trajectory, or in jobs they wanted to be in. They were in job roles, or were having to apply for job opportunities, for which they were overqualified. Domestic graduates may be similarly dissatisfied.

- A lack of awareness of the Graduate route among employers was reported as a barrier to those on the route seeking employment. Students and those on the route were having to explain conditions of the route to employers themselves.

- The distribution of graduate switchers across occupations is broadly similar to those who enter the Skilled Worker route directly from abroad and to domestic graduates.

- Almost half of student switchers (directly from Student to Skilled Worker) work as Senior care workers or Care workers (49%), whilst in comparison many fewer Graduate route switchers work in these occupations (20%). If the government is concerned about this phenomenon, the problem lies in the care sector rather than the international study sector.

Conclusion - It appears that Graduate visa holders are initially over represented in lower-paid work (below the Skilled Worker route threshold for health and care occupations), but that their outcomes improve over time. After a year on route their earnings are not dissimilar to a domestic graduates 15 months after they have graduated.


5. Effect on quality and integrity

- The UK’s recent rule changes, which limited dependants to just postgraduate research courses on the Student route, already appear to be affecting international student numbers for some institutions… while the number of international students coming to the UK is down across the board and which is having the biggest impact on courses affected by the change in dependant rules.

- International fees are a large component of the UK’s Higher Education (HE) institutions total fees, accounting for 45% of total fees across the sector.

- Actual changes and the perception that further changes may be made to the Graduate route could deter potential students from studying in the UK.

- UK Home Office data show that there were 26,200 (80%) fewer student-dependant visa applications, and 5,900 (15%) fewer main applicants applications made from January to March 2024 compared to the same period in 2023.

Conclusion - the Graduate route is not undermining the integrity of and quality of the UK higher education system. Under the current funding models for higher education across the UK, the Graduate route is helping universities to expand the range of courses offered while making up for financial losses on domestic students and research.


MAC Future Recommendations

1. Retaining the Graduate route in its current form.

2. Universities should be required to publish data on their spend on international recruitment agents and the number of students recruited through agents annually as a starting point to improving disclosure.

3. The government establishes a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents and sub-agents which encompasses the quality controls in the voluntary AQF, consulting with the Devolved Administrations to ensure UK-wide coverage.

4. The government should only open new migration routes or make significant policy changes when it has a clear plan for how it will collect and monitor data to assess the effectiveness of the route against its objectives and understand wider impacts.

5. That the UK Home Office introduces a requirement for universities to provide 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 under the Graduate route.

6. That the UK 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.


Final Thoughts

This is great news for the higher education sector and will ensure that the sector remains competitive in the global market to attract the brightest and the best to study at UK institutions. This news is equally important for the UK economy as it will allow employers to continue to attract and train new talent without restrictions of skilled worker visa salaries and then retain this talent later in the process through sponsorship.

We now wait to see what the government's official response will be to the MAC rapid review and conclusions.



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