No evidence foreign students are abusing UK graduate visas, review finds

<span>The Migration Advisory Committee said the graduate visa entitlement should remain in place.</span><span>Photograph: Cultura RM Exclusive/Peter Muller/Getty Images/Image Source</span>
The Migration Advisory Committee said the graduate visa entitlement should remain in place.Photograph: Cultura RM Exclusive/Peter Muller/Getty Images/Image Source

There is no evidence of widespread abuse of the UK’s graduate visa route, the government’s immigration advisers have concluded, despite repeated claims from senior Conservatives that it is being exploited to enter the jobs market.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said the graduate visa entitlement – allowing international students to work for two or three years after graduating – should remain in place. Members said the risks of abuse were relatively low and were “not undermining” the integrity and quality of the higher education system.

The report’s release has stoked an internal Conservative party row over net migration, with senior rightwing MPs describing it as a “whitewash”.

Robert Jenrick, a former immigration minister, wrote that the committee’s inquiries were tightly controlled by the commission from James Cleverly, the home secretary.

“The MAC’s conclusions have clearly been constrained by the narrow terms of reference deliberately set by the government. If you order white paint, you get a whitewash,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Neil O’Brien, a Tory MP who is an ally of Jenrick, described the report as a “whitewash” on Substack: “We are pursuing an arbitrary target, and the expansion of universities for their own sake.”

Another Conservative MP said backbenchers were “piling pressure” on Rishi Sunak to ignore the committee’s conclusions.

The government has so far declined to say whether it will accept the MAC recommendations. A source close to the home secretary said he would read the review thoroughly and listen to Prof Brian Bell, the committee’s chair, carefully before he makes any decision. They were due to meet on Tuesday afternoon.

The committee’s decision was greeted with relief by university vice-chancellors, who have warned that abolishing the graduate visa would spell financial turmoil for the sector. But higher education leaders said they still feared No 10 could cherrypick elements of the report to justify a further crackdown.

University leaders had been told to expect the government’s response in the middle of next week, alongside the publication of the ONS’s net migration figures. But the MAC report in favour of retaining graduate visas may have scuppered plans by ministers to use it as the centrepiece of a fresh crackdown.

Related: UK universities report drop in international students amid visa doubts

Cleverly commissioned the review amid a growing clamour in Tory circles that graduate visas were being abused to gain access to employment.

Last week, Jenrick published a report with the Centre for Policy Studies thinktank that called for the graduate visa to be abolished, claiming it “allowed people to come and work in the gig economy and on very low wages”.

In a forthright response, Bell said: “Our review recommends the graduate route should remain as it is, and is not undermining the quality and integrity of the UK’s higher education system.

“The graduate route is a key part of the offer that we make to international students to come and study in the UK. The fees that these students pay helps universities to cover the losses they make in teaching British students and doing research. Without those students, many universities would need to shrink and less research would be done.”

The committee said:

  • There is no evidence of widespread abuse specifically for the graduate route. The risks of abuse are relatively low due to the limited number of conditions the route imposes.

  • There is concern about potential exploitation of both student and graduate visa holders due to poor practices by certain agents who recruit students on to courses and may be mis-selling UK higher education, but this is a separate issue from abuse of the rules of the graduate route.

  • 114,000 graduate route visas were granted for main applicants in 2023 with a further 30,000 granted for dependants.

  • The use of the graduate route is concentrated among four nationalities: the top four – India, Nigeria, China and Pakistan – account for 70% of all graduate visas with India accounting for more than 40%.

  • Most of those on the graduate route completed postgraduate taught courses.

Graduate visa holders are initially “overrepresented in lower-paid work” but their outcomes improve over time, the report said.

The MAC review was unable to assess the risk of overstaying due to a lack of Home Office data.

Alex Proudfoot, the chief executive of the representative body Independent Higher Education, said: “We urge the government to swiftly confirm they will follow their experts’ recommendation that the graduate visa be retained in its current form, and commit afresh to working with the education sector to maximise the benefits that international students bring.”

Tim Bradshaw, the chief executive of the Russell Group of leading research universities, said: “The overall message from the MAC is that the graduate route is achieving its objectives as set out by the government. We would therefore urge ministers to end the uncertainty and confirm as soon as possible that the route will continue in its entirety.”

In February, Universities UK (UUK) said it would review international student admissions processes after the allegations of “bad practice” by agents recruiting overseas students.

The MAC has recommended the government should establish a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents, and universities should be required to publish data on their use of agents to “help protect the integrity” of the UK higher education system.

The review was launched in March after Cleverly 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.

Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of UUK, said: “The MAC’s recommendation that the graduate route should remain on its current terms is extremely important and welcome.

“The uncertainty caused by the decision to review the visa has been toxic,” she said. “We hope and expect that government now listens to the advice they have been given and provides categorical reassurance that the graduate visa is here to stay.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to attracting the best and brightest to study at our world-class universities, whilst preventing abuse of our immigration system, which is why the home secretary commissioned an independent review of the graduate route.

“We have already taken decisive action to address unsustainable levels of migration and our plans are working, with a 24% drop in visa applications across key routes in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

“We are considering the review’s findings very closely and we will respond fully in due course.”