Sunak warned against changing foreign student visa rules

Sunak warned against changing foreign student visa rules

Business leaders have called on prime minister Rishi Sunak not to be pressured into altering the graduate visa route

Cliff Saran

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Published: 16 May 2024 13:05

Several business leaders have put their names as signatories in an open letter to the prime minister, which warns the government against meddling with the graduate visa route to curb net migration.

The letter recognises the Tories’ industrial strategy, which is built on the UK becoming a more competitive place for research and innovation. But the government has also announced plans that have the potential to make it much harder for foreign students to study in the UK.

The letter states that the university sector is one of the UK’s greatest strengths, but the signatories – which include the UK and Ireland CEO of Siemens, the chairman of Anglo American, EDF Energy’s director of strategy corporate affairs, and Ray Tinto’s global head of innovation, science and technology – argue that changes to the graduate visa route could put this at risk.

The letter states: “We choose to invest in the UK because of the talent, skills and innovative ideas that can be found here. We are deeply concerned by reports of growing research and teaching funding gaps, as well as sharp declines in international student applications as a result of government policy. This not only risks undermining the positive impact that international students have on our skills base, future workforce and international influence, but also reduces the funding that universities have available for their wider activities, including research and collaboration with industry.”

The signatories called on Rishi Sunak to enable the UK to deliver a positive and ambitious higher education strategy supported by government funding and a policy framework to encourage the development of a more knowledge-intensive economy. They urged the prime minister not to make changes to the graduate visa route without a detailed and comprehensive review of the consequences.

“Over time, financial pressures could undermine one of the UK’s greatest strategic strengths with wide-ranging implications for businesses, as well as the wider economy and society,” the signatories warned.

Earlier in May, the Migration Advisory Committee published the Rapid review of the graduate route report, in which it warned that the government’s concerns about misuse of the route and its aim to reduce net migration could adversely impact international student numbers.

The report said: “The restrictions on dependents on the student route only came into force in January 2024. This change of policy on the student route is, in effect, a restriction to the graduate route, as dependents are only eligible for the graduate visa route if they have been dependents on the student route. Early indications show that this change will reduce the number of international students coming to study in the UK later this year.”

They also anticipated that the share of people moving from the graduate visa route to long-term work visas in the UK would decline due to significant increases in salary thresholds on the skilled worker route.

Rosalind Gill, head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business, warned that the uncertainty caused by the government’s request for a review of the graduate visa route had severely disrupted international student recruitment.

“To avoid further impact, the government must respond swiftly to confirm that no changes to the route will be made,” she said. “This matters to universities, but also to businesses because international students enrich the learning experience of domestic students and support the UK workforce. Additionally, the fees they pay help to fund research and other university activities, such as their collaboration with businesses.”

Gill said international students enhance the learning experience for domestic students and offer the opportunity for networking and collaborative opportunities, preparing students for success in an increasingly globalised world. 

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