This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Elaine Boyes, Executive Director, AGCAS and Anne Marie Graham, Chief Executive, UKCISA.
Recent research by AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) found that international graduates using the Graduate Route visa need resilience and perseverance to succeed in the UK job market. The research, funded by the UPP Foundation, is based on a June 2022 survey and November 2022 focus groups with survey respondents. A total of 1,010 international graduates engaged with the survey, 396 completed responses representing 77 nationalities from over 50 universities. Some 60% of respondents were in full-time employment.
Although the majority (72%) of those who were employed via the Graduate Route were in a graduate level role (SOC code 1-3), the research highlighted some significant barriers to seeking employment post-study. For every graduate ‘success story’ there is a less heartening tale from a graduate struggling to find UK employment.
Notably, respondents reported a lack of employer knowledge and resistance to employing individuals requiring visas. This makes finding work in the UK much more difficult for international graduates, with 42% of respondents reporting they had applied for over 50 roles since leaving university. The challenges reported by research participants in securing employment echo the recent findings by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Kaplan working with the Institute of Directors, which found that 27% of employers were unfamiliar with the Graduate Route visa and, concerningly, 20% would not consider using it. This matches the experience of graduates in the AGCAS research, who reported challenges with explaining their visa status to employers, including employers refusing to accept the Graduate Route visa as a valid right to work.
I get very frustrated that visas and immigration policy are very politicised, and I think that’s a lot of the context and reasoning behind why information is unclear and always changing.
The Graduate Route visa allows graduates to stay in the UK for two years post-study (three years for PhD candidates) without the need for employer sponsorship. However, ISE (Institute of Student Employers) members highlighted, in the HEPI / Kaplan research, that the Graduate Route visa does not facilitate recruitment to permanent roles or longer graduate training programmes. The AGCAS report recommends making the process easier for employers to switch employees from the Graduate to the Skilled Worker route visa, removing the immigration skills charge.
More positively, participants in the research reported that there are employers who are keen to hire international graduates to enhance the skills base in their organisation:
I do think in certain sectors, which have a very positive understanding of the Graduate visa and why it’s worth doing and sponsoring people is that, for certain employers they recognise the importance of having international employees with international backgrounds, because they bring a lot of skills they need.
The perception that international graduates are making a valuable contribution to UK employers supports international graduate confidence in applying for jobs in the UK post-study and eases their transition into the UK labour market.
Furthermore, those graduates in the focus groups who engaged with their university’s careers and employability services felt that the support they had received improved their knowledge, skills and confidence and was an important facilitator in securing post-study employment.
I got into an NHS graduate scheme, which was through the support from my university careers service. That was great.
International graduates also felt that the Graduate Route visa allowed them time to develop their work experience with a broader range of employers, in order to secure sponsorship later on:
Before coming to the UK, I think, my expectation of the Graduate Route was that it will buy me more time to prepare, and to be part of the interviews and also get some sort of experience whether it’s a temporary experience, because many of the employers that don’t sponsor would still like to hire you for maybe a year or two on the post-study work visa.
On a less positive note, the research highlights how cost and welfare challenges combined with a lack of support can limit international graduates’ ability to remain in the UK and pursue employment post-study. It was noted by participants that university support can be disconnected, in that careers and employability services, international student support teams, and other stakeholders such as the government are not linked in their support:
In careers services there’s a lot of signposting, but it’s not clear which authority or stakeholder is the best person to signpost to.
The report identifies several areas where policy makers, the higher education sector and employers could work collectively to improve the success of the Graduate Route visa for individual graduates and the UK economy.
Given the lack of awareness among employers, it’s clear that more needs to be done by policy makers and universities to support employers – particularly SMEs – to understand the flexibility and other opportunities offered by the Graduate Route visa. The International Student Employability Group (ISEG) call for a cross-government campaign to inform employers and increase awareness and take-up of the Graduate Route visa.
Within the sector, it’s clear that greater connectedness could add value to the international graduate experience. For AGCAS Member Services (university careers and employability services), there is a need for further collaboration with international student support teams and other departments to improve the student experience of seeking support and ensure up to date information is provided to students.
Finally, policymakers and the higher education sector need to work together to improve knowledge of the Graduate Route visa for both employers and international students, for the benefit of individual graduates and the UK economy. We have already seen how attractive this route has been for international students choosing where to study (the government’s target of 600,000 international students was met for the first time in 2020/21) – the challenge now is to raise awareness here in the UK.