Out-Law News

UK’s Graduate visa route ‘under review’, says government

Maria Gravelle tells HRNews about the current uncertainty around the Graduate visa route, and its future prospects 

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  • Transcript

    The Graduate visa may be safe for now, but it remains ‘under review’ and with a general election on the way the uncertainty around this route continues. We’ll speak to an immigration lawyer about what lies ahead and how the university sector, in particular, may be affected.

    A press release by the Home Office and Department of Education ahead of the general election confirms that the government’s current policy for post-study work rights in the form of the Graduate visa will remain in place. The statement goes on: ‘New proposals will further crackdown on student visas, ensuring only genuine students can come to the UK; [the Graduate] Route will be kept under review.’

    A reminder. On 14 May the government received the findings of the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) “rapid review” of the Graduate Route which provides international students with 2-3-year post-study work rights. The MAC concluded that the route has not been widely abused, as the government believed, and recommended that the route not be restricted. Since then the government has not  made any changes to the route, a position welcomed by leaders in the university sector. Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said: ‘We welcome the news that the Graduate Route remains in place. As recognised by the MAC’s recent report, international students bring huge value to our universities, our communities, and our economy. Stability is now needed in student migration policy to enable universities to plan for a long-term, sustainable future and protect quality and choice for all students.’

    Given we have a general election coming up and, if the polls are right, a new Labour government on the way, what is the future for the Graduate visa route? 

    Maria Gravelle is an immigration lawyer who has been following developments closely and earlier she joined me by video-link from Edinburgh. First question, how did we get here?”

    Maria Gravelle: “Well, the review and all of the concern around the Graduate visa under a Conservative government really comes from this five-point plan and the ultimate goal of that was to reduce net migration. That is the Conservatives’ main driving force on the immigration side of things and that's been the case throughout their tenure, and specifically since the end of last year when this was announced and that has manifested itself in many ways. There have been dramatic changes to the skilled worker visa in terms of the minimum salary thresholds, there have been many changes to the ability of students to bring dependents into the UK, and all of these measures were all part of this umbrella project, as it were, to bring net migration levels down. Now, as it stands, we don't really know what Labour's position on that is, whether they're going to have the same objective to reduce that migration or if they're perhaps going to look at the immigration routes that are available and see if there's room for improvement or, perhaps, go about it in a more targeted way. I think one of the criticisms of the five-point-plan and the Conservatives’ approach had was that reducing net migration is just one small vacuum about which to look at this issue. You know, you could take the student visa route as an example and say, okay, well, yes, removing the ability of students to bring their dependents with them, and their family members, could reduce net migration, however, it's also going to really damage the attractiveness of UK universities for overseas nationals who have family members because if they don't want to be separated from their family members they're simply going to look to study elsewhere instead of in the UK and it is a fact that international students are a very, very significant source of income for the UK higher education sector. So, the criticism around the Tories’ approach was very much that it has been looked at in a vacuum, it’s only looking at it as one issue and that is reducing net migration. It will be interesting to see how Labour approach the same topic, whether they would equally look at it in a vacuum or whether they would, perhaps, take a broader approach and look at it on a route-by-route basis, or whether they would just leave things as it is.”

    Joe Glavina: “Following the MAC’s rapid review the government has decided not to make any changes to the Graduate visa, Maria, so it the case that, notwithstanding the uncertainty around its future, employers can still use it if they want to?”

    Maria Gravelle: “Yes, so the routes that we have in place, the visa routes that we have in place., until the day that they are changed they remain valid routes. So if a new employee approaches an organisation with a Graduate visa, that person does have the right to work as it stands, and there would certainly be no immediate concern with employing them if they were suitable for the role and if the two-year duration of that visa was not going to impact on their ability to do the role. So all new recruits should be subject to a right to work check, but all offers of employment - and this is really the point that we want to drive home - any offers of employment, particularly for roles that are being recruited very far in advance, should all be subject to, and conditional upon, the individual having the right to work either at the point of employment or for the duration of the contract that they're being offered. That would allow an employer who had made an offer of employment on the basis that somebody is going to apply for a Graduate visa, if that route then changes by the time they start, you would have the ability to withdraw that offer of employment on the basis that the person is not able to establish an appropriate right to work. Another issue that this all brings up is the question over sponsorship. Should organisations be obligated to sponsor employees in certain circumstances? What I mean by sponsorship is organisations who have a UKVI sponsor licence and are able to issue certificates of sponsorship for their employees to seek visas under the skilled worker or other work-based visa routes. Again, there's never an obligation on the immigration side to sponsor somebody. The UK government have made that quite clear in their guidance. However, on the employment law side of things, there can be reasons why an employer would be advised to sponsor in a certain situation mostly to do with consistency practices, not discriminating between employees, so not offering sponsorship to one person and then not offering it to another person in exactly the same position, and all of these issues on the employment side really should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”

    Joe Glavina: “One thing I notice the government has picked up on from MAC’s review is a problem with some rogue agents mis-selling UK education, as they put it, and they want that to be stopped through tighter regulation. Can you tell me about that?” 

    Maria Gravelle: “The MAC report, while it didn't find examples of abuse on the Graduate visa side, one aspect of international student recruitment that it did focus on - and it wasn't the subject of the report so the report didn't go into an awful lot of detail -  it looked at the way that international students are recruited and using agencies overseas to access higher education in the UK. Now, there's nothing unlawful about that, it's absolutely fine for an international student to use an agency to help them prepare their application. Ultimately, it's the individual who needs to go and do any English tests and have the ultimate say over what course it is they're going to do but there have been some examples, which were reflected in the MAC's report, of international students paying large fees to agencies and not necessarily getting onto the course that they want, or not necessarily being enrolled in a course that meets their requirements. So for example, there was one testimonial in the MAC's review of a student who had used an agency, paid very large sum of money to that agency, and requested assistance applying for a course in a city in the UK, and had ended up in a very rural location. So, examples like that of potential abuse where students are paying large sums of money and not really getting what it is they're wanting, were reported. The press have commented on the potential for the government to look at that, if they want to tackle international student recruitment, and have a look at the way agencies are used by universities, and by overseas students, because that seems to be an area where there might be some room for improvement.”

    The government’s press release of 23 May sets the various measures they would implement to tackle student visa abuse if they win the general election and remain in government. We’ve put a link to that in the transcript of this programme for you.

    - Link to government press release: ‘New measures to tackle student visa abuse’

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