Plans to allow international students to stay in the UK for two years after graduating have been cautiously welcomed by employers’ groups – though they have warned more needs to be done to tackle post-Brexit skills shortages in key professions.
The new Home Office proposals grant students two years to find work, with no restriction on overall numbers, or on which jobs students seek. However, students must have graduated from a ‘trusted’ UK university with a proven track record in upholding immigration checks.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said the changes would allow students to “unlock their potential”. They will apply to international students starting courses from next year.
The announcement overrides then-home secretary Theresa May’s move in 2012 to scrap the two-year post-study work visa and impose a four-month restriction on overseas graduates.
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The latest move was broadly welcomed, though Alp Mehmet, chairman of Migration Watch UK, said the proposals were an “unwise” step that would “likely lead to foreign graduates staying on to stack shelves”.
“Our universities are attracting a record number of overseas students so there is no need to devalue a study visa by turning it into a backdoor route for working here,” he added.
However, others said the visa would enable businesses to fill skills shortage in sectors where the number of UK graduates coming through had proved insufficient. With the growth rate of immigration from EU countries currently falling, businesses have been concerned that a post-Brexit migration regime could restrict their access to the brightest talent.
Mike Spicer, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “This visa allows British universities and companies to benefit from the talent and energy of some of the students they have worked so hard to train.
“At a time of critical labour shortages, it’s right that the UK’s immigration system reflects economic reality and removes undue barriers to accessing skills. International students are crucial to the success of UK universities and the business communities in which they operate, and local companies will benefit from the opportunity to harness and develop their talent.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said the proposals would offer employers “access to talented graduates from around the world”.
"Evidence shows that international students bring significant positive social outcomes to the UK as well as £26bn in economic contributions, but for too long the lack of post-study work opportunities has put us at a competitive disadvantage in attracting those students,” he said.
Sectors that rely on international students stand to benefit the most from the proposals. Organisations including the National Union of Students and the Russell Group have argued that they can help plug a skills gap in the STEM sector that has been estimated to cost the country £1.5bn every year.
International students make up half of all full-time post-graduate students in STEM subjects and the government has said it intends to increase the overall number of international students by a third before 2030.
Matthew Fell, the CBI’s chief UK policy director, said: “International students provide a huge competitive advantage for UK businesses, which benefit from the skills, ideas and talents that our own universities have invested in.”
Despite the announcement, wider questions regarding post-Brexit migration remain unresolved. The government has not yet advanced longer-term plans for visas beyond the proposals published in a white paper last December.
However, home secretary Priti Patel last week asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review how the UK could implement an Australian-style points-based immigration system.