March 20, 2024

Foreign students likely using university courses as cheap means to obtain visas, UK laments

Foreign students likely using university courses as cheap means to obtain visas, UK laments

UK Home Secretary, James Cleverly

The United Kingdom Home Secretary, James Cleverly, has said that international students may be “undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system” by using university courses as cost-effective means of getting work visas.

Cleverly made this known in a letter written to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), while demanding visa review over concern that courses are being used as shortcuts to gain work permits.

According to the Guardian UK, Cleverly asked the agency to probe whether the graduate visa entitlement – allowing international students to work for two or three years after graduating – was failing to attract “the brightest and the best” to the UK.

But university leaders fear that slashing or restricting the graduate visa route will lead to a drastic fall in international recruitment, and provoke a financial crisis for universities that rely on income from international tuition fees.

The Home Secretary told the MAC that while the government was committed to attracting “talented students from around the world to study in the UK”, it also wanted “to ensure the graduate route is not being abused. In particular, that some of the demand for study visas is not being driven more by a desire for immigration”.

Cleverly said, “An international student can spend relatively little on fees for a one-year course and gain access to two years with no job requirement on the graduate route, followed by four years’ access to a discounted salary threshold on the skilled worker route.

“This means international graduates are able to access the UK labour market with salaries significantly below the requirement imposed on the majority of migrant skilled workers.”

He instructed the committee, which gives independent advice to the government, to investigate “any evidence of abuse” of the graduate route, “including the route not being fit for purpose”, and to look at which universities were producing graduates who used the route.

He also asked the MAC to analyse “whether the graduate route is undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system, including understanding how the graduate route is or is not, effectively controlling for the quality of international students, such that it is genuinely supporting the UK to attract and retain the brightest and the best, contributing to economic growth and benefiting British higher education”.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, Rachel Hewitt, said the government’s review seemed to be consciously targeted at undermining the success of British higher education.

“It is impossible to imagine the government going out of its way to make Britain less inviting to investment in almost any other sector – and yet every negative headline and policy reform makes Britain less attractive to international students,” Hewitt said.

“The graduate route is a key component of the offer that UK universities can make to international applicants, and its value should be recognised and not eroded.”

Jamie Arrowsmith, the director of Universities UK International, said universities were “deeply concerned” by the short notice given by Cleverly.

“Post-study work matters for many international students, allowing those who have invested in our country the opportunity to find work and contribute to the UK economy​,” said Arrowsmith.

“Having publicly recommitted to the graduate route on its current terms in May 2023, any further changes would be extremely damaging to our reputation as a welcoming destination for international students, and risks undermining a UK success story that generates more than £20bn a year in export earnings for the economy​.​”

Cleverly said “early data” showed that just 23% of international students using the skilled workers route moved into graduate-level jobs, and that last year only a third moved into jobs paying more than £26,000 a year.

The committee is expected to report back in May, and its findings could come at a difficult time for the higher education sector. So far this year, enrolments from overseas have fallen by 40% compared with 2023.

Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of the University Alliance group, said: “It is important that international students have the opportunity to study at the full range of UK universities so they can select the option that is right for them, and so that all UK students and regions can benefit from their contributions.”