Rishi Sunak backtracks plan to restrict Graduate Route; tightens visa rules

United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has decided to abandon radical plans to restrict or scrap the Graduate visa route that allows overseas students to work in the UK for up to two years post-graduation.

The United Kingdom’s Graduate Route scheme, a popular post-study work option for Indian students, will be kept under review while the UK government introduces measures to tighten student visa regulations.

This decision follows strong opposition from key cabinet members, including the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary David Cameron, Home Secretary James Cleverly, and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, who argued that such a move would be detrimental to universities and the economy, with Indian students alone accounting for more than 40 per cent of all graduate visas issued.

Financial impact on universities

A letter from vice-chancellors of over 20 universities, primarily from the non-Russell Group in the north of England, highlighted the financial impact of international students. They noted that the international student cohort from the 2020-21 academic year alone contributed 7.2 billion pounds to the northern economy. Reductions in applications due to stricter visa rules could lead to significant financial shortfalls for these institutions.

Measures to regulate student visas

The proposed measures by the UK government to prevent abuse of the immigration system, include:

  • 1) Regulate international student recruitment:Universities will be required to sign up to a stringent framework for agents to combat rogue recruitment practices.
  • 2) Enhance compliance standards: Institutions that enroll international students failing visa checks or not completing their courses risk losing their sponsor licenses.
  • 3) Raise financial maintenance requirements: International students must demonstrate financial self-sufficiency.
  • 4) Review English language assessments: Standardising assessments to ensure students have the necessary skills to understand their course materials.
  • 5) Restrict remote learning: Ensure overseas students are primarily engaged in face-to-face courses.

Graduate Route scheme under review
The Graduate Route scheme will remain under review amid concerns that it is not attracting high earners contributing to the UK economy. The Home Office acknowledged the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) warning about rogue recruitment agents exploiting student and graduate visa holders.

Response from Indian students and alumni
Indian students and alumni have been vocal in urging the government to retain the graduate visa scheme. The National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU) UK emphasised the importance of the scheme in maintaining the UK’s appeal as a study destination.

NISAU chair Sanam Arora, argued that any reduction in the scheme would significantly diminish the UK’s attractiveness to top international students, who invest heavily in their UK education and seek meaningful work experience as a return on their investment.

Upon the latest announcement, students expressed relief at the decision to maintain the Graduate Route.

Broader impact of student visa regulation in the UK
These measures are part of the Sunak-led government’s broader strategy to reduce legal migration. The government estimates that its new rules would have prevented 300,000 arrivals last year. The overall aim is to ensure that only genuine students come to the UK to study and not as a means to work or immigrate.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a 10 per cent decrease in net migration. This reduction was welcomed by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who emphasised migration control as a key priority in his campaign for the upcoming general election scheduled for July 4.

However, the UK Home Office highlighted that recent ONS figures did not reflect the stricter visa rules on family dependents implemented earlier this year, which have resulted in a 25 per cent drop in visa applications.

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