This blog was kindly contributed by Kathy Daniels, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor International, Aston University.
The government’s announcement of a new graduate route for international students has been met with approval by higher education institutions. However, what does this mean and what responsibilities does it place on the higher education sector?
The graduate route, more commonly referred to as the Post-Study Work visa allows international students who achieve a qualification at undergraduate level or above to remain in the UK for up to two years to seek or do work. It is proposed that this will apply to international students who complete their studies in the summer of 2021 and beyond.
This route replaces the old route which allowed international students to remain and work for two years after study, and closed in 2012. The impact of this closure was significant, with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reporting that there was a 29% drop in students coming from India to study in the UK.
There is no requirement for international students to secure a ‘graduate level’ job. The Post-Study Work visa will allow students to remain in the UK to do or seek any sort of work. The concern about the ability to secure graduate level employment was one of the reasons for the removal of the old route in 2012. Migration Watch UK report that in 2011, the final full year that the previous post-study work visa option was available, 49,600 students were granted a visa allowing them to remain and work for 2 years in the UK. The removal of the old route meant that students could only stay to work in the UK if they secured graduate level employment with a salary of at least £20,000 per annum. In 2013, the first full year after this new requirement was introduced, just 4,100 students received a visa allowing them to remain to work in the UK.
Although the reality is that not all students will get graduate level jobs, the intention behind the visa change is aimed at retaining talent. Announcing the role of the UK in the world’s largest genetics project on 11 September 2019, the Prime Minister stated that the new Post-Study Work visa will be one way of building up talent in the UK to allow breakthroughs in science and technology.
It is certainly hoped that the opportunity to be involved in exciting opportunities will be the experience of some international students. However, we have to be realistic and accept that, given the experiences prior to 2012, it will not be the experience of many.
The Post-Study Work visa is aimed at retaining talent, but it is also a response by the government to pressure from the higher education sector. If higher education institutions want their graduates to be able to stay in the UK and work, what responsibilities does that bring?
Firstly, higher education institutions need to consider their responsibility in preparing students for work. This requires an examination of the content of degree programmes to ensure that they are giving students the knowledge that future employers want. The world of work is fast-moving, but is degree content moving at the same pace? Should higher education institutions be required to work with employers to review degree content?
Secondly, higher education institutions need to consider their responsibility in creating suitable employability activities. The typical UK approach of self-development and critical thinking is unfamiliar to many international students. Job markets in different countries vary, and students might not see the value of employability teaching that is offered because of a lack of understanding of specific expectations in the UK. Having ‘optional’ activities for students might mean that those who really need the help in adjusting to the UK employment market opt out.
Higher education institutions need to think carefully about the best way to prepare students for UK employment. Should higher education institutions be building ‘preparation for work’ into degrees, and making it credit bearing so that students have to engage? Is a compulsory element of work preparation the responsible way to meet the needs of international students?
Thirdly, higher education institutions need to be realistic in their marketing messages to students. The Post-Study Work changes are likely to mean a significant increase in the number of international students entering the UK, but this does not mean a corresponding increase in the number of meaningful jobs being created in the workplace. All higher education institutions want to promote the UK as an attractive place to study, which it is. However, does there need to be some realism communicated to students so that they do not see their dreams shattered once they enter the world of work? Should the higher education sector take a responsibility for having a united message about the reality of employment prospects, and how international students can best prepare themselves for securing meaningful employment in the UK?