Skip to main content

Migration Advisory Committee review recommends retaining Graduate visa route in its current form


Crucial review finds no evidence Graduate route is undermining integrity and quality of UK higher education

Date of Publication:

The Migration Advisory Committee's (MAC's) much awaited rapid review of the Graduate visa route was published today.

Report cover You can download the 70-page report here.

Home Secretary James Cleverly commissioned the review as part of the Government's December 2023 five-point plan to reduce net migration. Cleverly posed the MAC a number of questions to understand whether the Graduate route was meeting its wider objectives and whether there was evidence it was being abused and was undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system.

Today the MAC said its review did not find evidence of widespread abuse on the Graduate route and concludes that the route is not undermining the UK's higher education system. MAC added, however, that there was reason to believe that some agents and subagents recruiting international students are mis-selling UK higher education and exploiting students in the process.

Importantly, MAC recommends retaining the Graduate route in its current form.

In answering the five key questions posed by the Home Secretary, the MAC concludes in today's review as follows:

1. Is there any evidence of abuse of the route, including the route not being fit for purpose?

We have not found 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. We have not been able to assess the risk of overstaying due to a lack of data on this from the Home Office. We are concerned about potential exploitation of both Student and Graduate visa holders due to poor practices by certain agents and sub-agents who recruit students onto courses and may be mis-selling UK higher education, but this is a separate issue from abuse of the rules of the Graduate route. Whilst we have not been able to establish scale, the issue of exploitation of route users was raised by student representatives, sector bodies, and in several interviews that we commissioned with Graduate visa holders.

2. Who is using the route and from what universities did they graduate from?

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 4 nationalities. The top 4 - India, Nigeria, China and Pakistan - account for 70% of all Graduate visas with India accounting for over 40%.

The majority of those on the Graduate route completed postgraduate taught courses. 91% of Graduate visa holders in 2023 had completed a postgraduate taught course. Most of the growth since the Graduate route's introduction is from non-Russell Group universities' postgraduate courses which account for 66% of all Graduate visas. This is the same group that has driven the growth in the number of Student visas in recent years.

3. What are the demographics and trends for students accessing a Study visa and subsequently accessing the UK labour market by means of the Graduate route?

The age profile of those on the Graduate route is changing. Since 2021, the proportion of main applicants aged over 25 has increased by approximately 15 percentage points to 54% in 2023. This has coincided with an increase in the dependant ratio for the Graduate route and an increase in share of dependants that are children. However, this was before the introduction of the dependant rule change. Early evidence suggests the dependant rule change is already having an effect with the number of dependant applications falling by 80% when comparing Q1 2024 with Q1 2023. It will be necessary to await the usual peak in Student visa data at the start of the next academic year in September 2024 to see the full effect of the policy.

4. What work do Graduate visa holders do during and after their time on the route and are they contributing to the economy?

Based on the available data, it appears that Graduate visa holders are initially overrepresented in lower-paid work (below the Skilled Worker route threshold for health and care occupations), but that their outcomes improve over time. After a year on route their earnings are not dissimilar to a domestic graduates 15 months after they have graduated. Among the first cohort of Graduate visa holders, around half moved on to Skilled Worker visas, primarily into skilled roles. Graduate visa holders who move into the Skilled Worker route have earnings and work in occupations which are comparable to domestic UK graduates. We expect the impact on public finances of Graduate visa holders on the route to be small but positive, as most appear to work, are young and have no recourse to public funds. We were unable to access data which would allow us to look at the employment outcomes of dependants on the Graduate route and therefore it is not possible to assess their economic impact.

5. Is the Graduate Route undermining the integrity of and quality of the UK higher education system? Is the Graduate Route supporting the UK to attract the brightest and best, contributing to economic growth and benefitting British higher education and soft power?

We conclude that the Graduate route is not undermining the integrity of and quality of the UK higher education system. Under the current funding models for higher education across the UK, the Graduate route is helping universities to expand the range of courses offered while making up for financial losses on domestic students and research. It has also contributed to diversifying the range of universities (and thus domestic students) that benefit from the financial contribution international students make. The potential poor practice by some agents recruiting international students does risk undermining the integrity of higher education in the UK, as set out in the abuse section.

We were unable to identify a meaningful definition of 'brightest and best' to use in this commission and cannot comment on the performance of the route against this objective. As previously expressed in our 2018 Student route review, we expect those who remain in the UK long term to make positive net contributions to public finances and the economy. We are unable to measure the impact on soft power in any meaningful way.

We would expect a positive effect, though it is not possible to estimate the scale of this effect and its potential impact relative to wider government levers to boost soft power.

As summarised in a covering letter, MAC's all-important recommendations following the review are as follows:

• We recommend retaining the Graduate route in its current form. We found that the Graduate route is broadly achieving the objectives set out by the Home Office, while also supporting Government education policy as outlined in the International Education Strategy. The changes to the rules on student dependants which were implemented in January and are in effect a change to the dependant rules of the Graduate route, will likely have a significant effect on Graduate route usage going forward. Whilst initial data suggests these changes are already substantially reducing international student numbers, we believe their full impact should be assessed before considering further changes. Implementing additional restrictions or closing the route now could risk overcorrection. Given international student fees help make up the financial deficit that universities have from teaching domestic students and research, any significant restrictions to the route should only be considered once the structural funding issues in the higher education sector have been addressed. This speaks to the broader point that any changes to migration policy will likely involve trade-offs across other areas of Government policy.

• We recommend that the Government establishes a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents and subagents which encompasses the quality controls in the voluntary Agent Quality Framework, consulting with the Devolved Administrations to ensure UK-wide coverage. We recommend that universities should be required to publish data on their spend on recruitment agents and the number of international students recruited through such means annually as a starting point to improving disclosure. Whilst most agents play an important role in promoting the UK and in supporting international students, we found some examples of bad practice from certain agents. Our recommendations should help ensure that the quality of UK higher education is upheld, and students are protected from exploitation.

• We provide several recommendations on data and monitoring for the route and the wider immigration system which are outlined in our report. Firstly, we recommend that the Government should only open new migration routes or make significant policy changes when it has a clear plan for how it will collect and monitor data to assess the effectiveness of the route against its objectives and understand wider impacts. We also recommend that the Home Office introduces a requirement for universities to provide it with confirmation of the course outcome (e.g., class of degree) on the Student route, in addition to confirmation that a course has been successfully completed which is currently required. We note that some of the data you referred to in your commissioning letter was incorrect. This data was not referring to those that had switched from the Graduate route to the Skilled Worker route, rather it covered those that had switched from the Student route to the Skilled Worker route. This takes us to our next recommendation; we recommend the Home Office undertakes a review of the data variables used for analytical purposes across the largest visa routes (including the Skilled Worker route, Student route and Graduate route) to develop a clear definition of what these data represent, and the quality of each variable collected. Finally, we recommend that the Government explore and make further use of the HO/HMRC matched data.

To accompany today's review, the Home Office has published a statistical analysis of migrants' use of the Graduate route. You can read it here.

It looks at the journeys of foreign nationals who came to study in the UK, with a particular focus on those entering and leaving the Graduate route, including what they do after their Graduate leave expires and whether they extended into other leave.