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The timescales for the MAC review of the Graduate visa show a government being driven by political – not policy – concerns

  • 22 March 2024
  • By Harry Anderson
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Harry Anderson, Deputy Director of Universities UK International.

The (long awaited) return of the MAC

Last week we finally saw the government commission the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the Graduate visa.

It had been anticipated for some time, following an announcement from the Home Secretary in December that the government were keen to ensure the visa “works in the best interests of the UK and to ensure steps are being taken to prevent abuse.”

Back then, we’d been told the MAC would be commissioned in January. Why it’s taken until now for the commission to be confirmed is unclear.

What is clear, is how quickly the MAC will need to work to respond to the Home Secretary’s deadline – having asked the committee to undertake a ‘rapid review’, meaning there will be no call for evidence, little scope for external evidence gathering, and a much more limited ability to conduct stakeholder engagement.  

Political pressures appear to be driving the agenda

So how have we got here, and why is the government wanting to examine the Graduate visa so quickly?

The short answer is politics. The slightly longer answer involves considering three facts:

  1. Firstly, net migration has been running at record highs. This is due to an unusual set of circumstances – such as the pandemic and increase in humanitarian visas – but is also undoubtedly the consequence of the government’s own immigration policy. With Westminster having ‘taken back control’ in 2019, they designed a more liberal, more open immigration system encouraging more people to come to live, work, and study in the UK. That was a choice, not an accident – and included an explicit strategy to grow the number of international students.
  2. The second is public concerns over immigration have been increasing in recent months. You can debate what’s behind this trend – i.e. whether government has been responding to, or driving, these rising concerns – but that’s a moot point. We have high numbers of people coming to the UK, and high numbers of voters expressing some concerns about the impact this might have. However, those concerns are somewhat nuanced. While the public might not support levels of migration overall, they might at the same time support the UK’s humanitarian response – and international students.
  3. The third and final fact lies within any of the recent voting intention polls which shows the Conservatives lagging behind. The latest ‘poll of polls’ have the Conservative Party around 18-20 points behind, having not led since late 2021. During which time, we’ve also seen the rise of Reform –who have made immigration a key issue. The recent defection of Lee Anderson from the Conservatives will also have stoked concerns within government.

With a General Election rapidly coming into view, these facts have combined to create a situation whereby the government may believe that clamping down on immigration even further is their only hope of reversing their electoral fortunes.

Immigration policy announcements have increasingly been choreographed around visa and net migration data releases, attempting to show a government in control and bearing down on migration.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Home Secretary has asked the MAC to report by mid-May. Shortly after the local elections – expected to be difficult for the government – but before the latest iteration of net migration statistics.

In short, it appears to be political – not policy – concerns driving the timetable imposed on the MAC.

Why we need to give the MAC time to review

To state the obvious, rushing a review for political purposes isn’t conducive to good policymaking.

After all, this is a new visa. In normal circumstances, the opportunity to better understand those on the Graduate visa – where and what they studied, which countries they came from, how they are spending their time here – would be invaluable.

Had the MAC been given the time they presumably asked for, the review could have fully considered the role the visa has played in migration policy and the extent to which it has supported the ambitions of the International Education Strategy. Assessed our post-study offer against those of our international competitors, and the role that international graduates play in building soft power and developing links with other countries.

A rushed review means little of that evidence gathering can happen. Instead, the impression is that government is set on reducing the attractiveness of the UK to international students – and, consequently, the contribution they make to the UK economy.

What happens next?

Ideally, the government would agree to extend the review to allow for genuine evidence gathering and consultation. As the Committee themselves noted, “it has taken longer for the government to commission us than we have been given to complete the review.”

Short of an extension, it is hard to see how the MAC will be able to fully consider the Graduate visa and their report – due out on 14 May – will likely borrow heavily from evidence presented in their Annual Report from December.

UUK will of course engage closely with the MAC and work with universities and other stakeholders to ensure we’re able to support and inform the work of the committee wherever possible.

But one thing is evident: for the government to make significant changes to the Graduate visa following such a review would be a clear demonstration of political expediency at the expense of evidence-led policymaking.

Universities are already facing an increasingly volatile international recruitment landscape. Data from IDP shows close to half of prospective students (45%) would likely change or consider changing their study destination if the post-study work period was shortened. We already know that, following reforms introduced in May 2023, recruitment in January 2024 is down by around a third. The risks posed by reform to the Graduate visa – based on a rushed review – to the success (and long-term financial sustainability) of the UK’s higher education sector couldn’t be clearer.

Rather than playing politics with the visa, government should recognise the objective of last year’s policy changes – to cool the growth in student numbers and reduce net migration – has been more than met. We should be proud of the number of international students who chose to come here and study and celebrate the enormous contribution – economic, social, cultural – they make.

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