Posted on 14 May '24

5 Things UK Universities (and Governments) Need to Remember About the Graduate Route Review

Update: The MAC review recommends no changes to the Graduate Route

The MAC review has published its report today (14 May) and recommended the government make no major changes to the Graduate Route visa. This is hugely reassuring for the sector - especially those involved in supporting and encouraging prospective postgraduates.

We don't yet know exactly how the government will respond to the MAC review's findings, but it seems unlikely that significant changes will be made to the UK's post-study-work-visa in the near future.

This blog was written to explore the implications of cutting the Graduate Route (based on press coverage of potential actions). It serves to underline the importance of the post-study-work visa to UK postgraduate recruitment and warn against some of the incoherencies in drastically cutting it.

I don't imagine for one moment that it influenced the MAC's decision, but that decision is certainly one this author agrees with.

Announced in December, confirmed in March and finally reporting as of 14 May, a review of the UK Graduate Route is the latest in a series of dramatic changes to UK international education policy.

Thankfully, the review has found no evidence of abuse and recommends no changes to the current 24 month post-study-work-visa. Prior to publication reporting in The Times suggested the review would recommend dramatically reducing the duration of the visa.

This hasn't happened, but the fact that it was 'leaked' suggests it represents a preferred option somewhere. As such, it's still worth taking seriously as an example of the (now much less imminent) worst-case scenario for the Graduate Route.

We've been collecting data for these scenarios in Pulse for several months. That means I can loosely 'model' the impact of those changes. There's also a broader point to make about what these changes would actually achieve if a government was to make them regardless of the review's recommendations.

#1 Yes, the Graduate Route is very important to UK postgraduate recruitment

Audiences have literally been telling us so, at all levels of study, across a wide range of Keystone Education Group platforms (including FindAMasters and FindAPhD).

Jenni Parsons of UniQuest and I wrote recently in The PIE about the value of the Graduate Route to prospective international Masters students. The headline numbers haven't really changed.

43% of prospective international students say the availability Graduate Route is 'very important' to their decision to study in the UK – and only 10% say the post-study work visa isn't significant to them.

As expected, the biggest impact is at Masters level:

Nearly half of prospective Masters students say the Graduate Route is 'very important' to their UK study plans. The impact is pretty visible at Bachelors and PhD level too, to be honest.

#2 And, yes, cutting it to 6 months would probably have a big impact

The utility of a 6 month post-study-work-visa is something I'll come back to. For now, we can acknowledge that it's substantially shorter than most of the UK's competitors. It's significantly less appealing than the current 24 month Graduate Route:

It's a similar looking chart, with PGT (Masters) the most affected. This is survey data, not a predictive model, but it's survey data with scale and what it suggests is that almost half of the people considering a UK Masters would be much less likely to do so with a 6 month Graduate Route.

Now, the cynic in me might assume that's exactly what a government might want – bearing in mind those net migration figures and all that.

#3 But UK visa changes have already had a big impact

Here's a trend you'll be familiar with from our monthly Pulse report:

The UK visa changes that came into effective play from September led to a dramatic downturn in the proportion of prospective international students search for UK Masters opportunities (in this case on FindAMasters).

The good news for universities is that things have stabilised in 2024 so far. Around 25% of international audiences on our platforms are interested in UK study. It's a lot less than it was, but it's still a lot of people.

But, were I a policy-maker seeking to further reduce international student interest in the UK; well, I'm really not sure I'd feel a cut to the Graduate Route was strictly necessary at this point. The impact of the above trend will already be working its way across the sector as universities recruit for 24-25.

And if I was a policy-maker who wasn't inclined to further reduce international student interest in the UK; well, I would be very wary of further stormy policy changes now that the ship is steadying with a tide at low ebb.


#4 A falling tide scuttles many boats

The government's own rationale for the Graduate Route review situates it as a targeted intervention: reiterating a desire to attract 'the brightest and best' international students and raises concerns over the quality of the courses they've been attracted to (referring to increases at 'institutions with the lowest UCAS tarif' – something with contentious relevance to Masters recruitment) and the roles they go into.

Would a drastic cut to the Graduate Route has the necessary nuance to achieve these objectives?

Alas, Pulse doesn't actually ask prospective Masters students if they consider themselves to be one of the 'brightest and the best'. But we do know, for example, what our audience is interested in studying.

Yes, some fields are impacted slightly more than others. But all are impacted.

Setting aside the question of whether a cut to the number of international students studying Healthcare & Medicine Masters would be desirable, it's not obvious that the 'proposed' reform can do this without also dissuading a third of the audience for Computer Science (and nearly half that for Science & Engineering).

Given that we're already seeing the impact of other visa changes on Graduate Recruitment, this feels like using a rather large hammer to crack a nut of questionable size and definition.

#5 A drastic cut to the graduate route might have perverse impacts

Such as making it harder to use this option as a legitimate actual post-study-work-visa.

Someone on the Graduate Route currently has two years to hit the minimum salary threshold for a Skilled Worker visa (typically £30,960 or more, after a graduate discount is applied). This is already something of a stretch (median earnings for domestic Masters graduates are £35,000 after five years).

It's much harder to see how somebody is supposed to progress to this level within 6 or even 12 months, unless they transition rapidly from graduation into a high-paying role. A shortened Graduate Route may have limited relevance to such students (who don't need it) and yet these are the audiences the post-study-work-visa is meant to attract. That leaves those the government worries have less intention of progressing to skilled work in the first place.

As a targeted intervention it isn't obvious that this will be effective for universities, students or the government's own stated policy objectives.

What does this mean and what can we do?

Hopefully the above has made the point that cutting the Graduate Route would be unecessary and damaging at this point. Thankfully, the MAC seem to agree.

But we shouldn't be complacent. We need to keep on making the case that an attractive post-study-work-visa is key to the value our postgraduate education sector can deliver for international students and for the UK.

  • Firstly, we need to emphasise the importance of UK international education before, during and after the publication of the review findings. This is something Universities UK International continue to lead the way on, with a new phase of the #WeAreInternational campaign launching today.
  • We also need to engage with the detail and intention of the policy. As I've tried to show, it's not obvious that some of the potential changes to the Graduate Route actually achieve the aims set out for them, or that they're the best way to do so. This scrutiny is more important in an election year when international visa policy is likely to be made a manifesto issue.
  • And we need to remember that these policy changes (and the uncertainty they generate) affect students searching for UK study right now. The data we have at FindAUniversity and Keystone can help universities understand the impact on those students and better provide the support and engagement they need.

Finally, don't underestimate the impact of positive messaging and support for prospective students. Our data showed that awareness of the #WeAreInternational campaign rose substantially during the months following the 2023 relaunch and that this had a direct effect on how welcoming audiences found the UK. Communicating and engaging with international audiences does make a different and, as ever, it's something our team is here to support you with.

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