Posted on 7 Dec '23

How Much Would a Cut to the Graduate Route Cut Postgraduate Recruitment?

  • The UK government has announced a review of the Graduate Route post-study work visa
  • Pulse data suggests around 2/3 of prospective postgraduates would be less likely to consider a UK Masters or PhD if the Graduate Route was cut
  • The potential impact is greatest for South Asian PGT students and East & Southeast Asian PGR students
  • Elsewhere, we've been looking at further shifts in international search behaviour; we've also put together a guide to UK student visas for postgraduate marketing and recruitment professionals

You don't need me to tell you that it's been a turbulent year for UK international postgraduate recruitment. We began with heavily trailed and eventually announced changes to dependent visas, followed by further announcements on immigration fees. And, just last month, we saw the immediate impact of these changes as Share of Search for the UK dropped across several audiences.

The one aspect of immigration policy that's been immune from all of this change has been the Graduate Route post-study work visa, itself a huge driver for the 2021 boom in international Masters recruitment.

And, well, you already know where this is going.

Yesterday the UK Government announced a 'five point plan' to reduce legal immigration (no, that's not a typo) including a review of the Graduate Route in order to 'prevent abuse' and ensure that 'higher education should be a route to study and education, rather than a visa route by the back door.'

Now you might, like me, feel that completing (and paying for!) a full postgraduate degree and then seeking work using the skills you've acquired seems a lot more like turning up at the front door, knocking politely and presenting an invitation. But that's by the by.

We're now waiting to see exactly how the UK's less-than-three-year-old post-study work visa will be reviewed and potentially altered. And so are prospective students.

How big an impact will this have?

Our Postgraduate Pulse survey has been measuring the impact of a range of possible visa changes, including a cut to the Graduate Route (from 2 years to 6 months).

We'd hope that any eventual change isn't as drastic as this (the question was based on some hypothetical policies doing the media rounds at the beginning of the year) but it serves as a good litmus test for how important the Graduate Route is to international postgrads.

Here's the most recent data, for November:

Around 2/3 of prospective international postgraduates say that a cut to the Graduate Route would impact their decision to study in the UK – with 1/3 saying they'd be much less likely to come. There's a slight split between PGT and PGR, with prospective Masters students more likely to say this is a serious issue.

Who will be most affected?

Things become more varied once we drill down into specific audiences. Here I'm using data from August to November to ensure big enough samples for some regions:

This time we have breakdowns for PGT and PGR responses alongside each other, grouped by audience:

  • The most heavily impacted region would be South Asia (including India and Pakistan) and especially so at PGT level
  • The PGR impact is biggest for East & Southeast Asia (including China)
  • Europe and North America are the most likely to be unconcerned, but over 50% of would still be at least slightly put off by a Graduate Route cut (and the issue is more critical for PGR within these audiences)

It's also worth remembering that PGT and PGR recruitment varies a lot across these regional audiences:

African and South Asian students make up a significant proportion of Masters-level enrolments and a much smaller proportion at PhD-level. Conversely, European, North American and East/Southeast Asian students are more likely to come to the UK for PGR study – and it's these audiences that care the most about a Graduate Route cut.

The biggest problem is going to be uncertainty

Any actual change probably won't arrive in time to affect someone graduating next summer (i.e. a 23/24 Masters student). It's also possible that any recommendations for change will fall to the wayside with a change of government next year.

But students may not be reassured by that logic. In fact, we already have evidence that concern correlates with uncertainty. Here's what happens if we put the hypothetical Graduate Route cut on a time series for PGT students:

Concern rises from Spring, when visa changes are being announced but details have yet to be confirmed (and a Graduate Route cut feels plausible). It then drops from July when the plans are confirmed to focus on dependents and in-study switching. From then on there's a steady level of concern, with a very slight increase in November.

The risk now is that renewed uncertainty leads to renewed concern – at a time when we're already seeing some prospective students look elsewhere for postgraduate study.

Reasons to be more positive?

There's no hiding the fact that these policy changes (and the uncertainty they create) are impacting prospective international students.

But that impact isn't universal. Interest in the UK from China seems to be more robust, and we've recently seen PGR Share of Search for the UK increase from EU and non-EU international students.

It's also important to remember that post-study work opportunities aren't the only driver for UK postgraduate study. The sector's reputation and study options are consistently ranked as more important by prospective Masters and PhD students (something I briefly discussed on the Wonkhe Show last week).

Finally, uncertainty is something we can combat. Firstly, we can join the UUK call for government to commit to the Graduate Route in principle. Secondly, we can be prepared to inform and reassure students – something our new guide to student visas for postgraduate marketing and recruitment professionals can hopefully help with.

You may also like...

Where are the opportunities for international recruitment?

International Masters and PhD audiences are reacting to UK student visa changes, but the impact varies.

A PG marketer's guide to UK student visas

Changes to the UK immigration system can have a big impact recruitment. Here's what you need to know as a postgraduate professional.