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Graduate Route safe for now as General Election declared

UNITED KINGDOM

Higher education stakeholders finally breathed a sigh of relief as the British government confirmed that the Graduate Route, which allows international students to stay in the United Kingdom for two years after graduation to look for work, is to be retained in its current form.

The announcement came the day after UK voters were told by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that they will be heading to the polls for a General Election on 4 July after a whirlwind week for British politics, as well as for university stakeholders.

University chiefs and international student groups, including the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK, mounted a highly effective lobbying campaign to save the post-study work rights for overseas students, as University World News reported.

However, in return for leaving the Graduate Route untouched following fears that it might be scrapped, or at least reduced in length, the Sunak government said it would keep the route under review and intended to crackdown on student visas instead “to ensure they are only used for education and not as a gateway to immigration”.

Home Secretary James Cleverly and Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan are understood to have fought hard with other cabinet allies to convince Sunak to accept the recommendation from the government’s Migration Advisory Committee to leave the Graduate Route alone.

The Conservative government, which now has to win the General Election in six weeks’ time, said it planned to crack down on “rogue recruitment agents” who encourage people to apply to British universities by mandating universities to sign up to a stringent framework for agents.

The government also announced “tougher compliance standards” for institutions recruiting students from overseas.

It warned: “Those who accept international students who then fail to pass our visa checks, enrol or complete their courses, will risk losing their sponsor licence.”

Financial maintenance requirements will also be raised, so international students will have to prove their financial self-sufficiency, but there was no indication as to what level that will rise to.

English language assessments will also be reviewed with the objective of standardising independent assessment to ensure “all international students are equipped with the skills to understand their course materials – or they shouldn’t expect a place at a UK university”.

Restrictions on remote delivery are also part of the package to “ensure all overseas students are predominantly undertaking face-to-face courses”.

Cleverly put the curbs on student visas firmly in the context of fulfilling the government’s pledge to cut legal migration, which soared after Brexit and election of Boris Johnson’s Tory government in 2019.

Cleverly said he wanted to “make sure our immigration routes aren’t abused”. He added: “That’s why we are cracking down on rogue international agents and, building on work across government, to ensure international students are coming here to study, not work.”

Keegan was more positive in tone and said she was “proud that British universities have a fantastic reputation both at home and abroad”. She added: “It is testament to the quality of education they offer that so many people aspire to study in this country.”

However, in keeping with the mood music set by the Conservatives as they gear up for an election fight that many pundits believe they have little chance of winning, she said: “It is right that we strike the balance between controlling immigration and making sure the UK remains the ‘go to’ place for students around the world, supporting our brilliant universities and enabling the best and brightest to study here.”

Migration figures fall

Net migration to the UK fell by 10% last year to 685,000 after hitting a record high of 764,000 in 2022, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics on 23 May 2024.

The biggest fall was in the number of people coming to the UK for humanitarian reasons – such as from Ukraine and Hong Kong – which fell by more than 100,000 last year. The BBC said the fall in net migration was also driven by non-EU foreign students, who flocked to UK universities after COVID-19, but have now finished their courses and returned home.