Government drops post-study work visa restrictions

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday unveiled a new post-study work visa allowing international students to work in the UK for two years after graduation.

The move reverses the controversial decision in 2012 by then home secretary Theresa May to scrap the existing visa as part of the government’s efforts to drive down immigration numbers, but which put UK universities at a disadvantage in the competition to attract international talent, compared to rival destination countries with more generous visa regimes.

Downing Street said that international students make up half of all full-time postgraduate students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and the new visa would “build on government action to help recruit and retain the best and brightest global talent, but also [offer] opportunities for future breakthroughs in science, technology and research and other world-leading work that international talent brings to the UK”.

Prime Minister Johnson, who has assembled a right-wing Conservative cabinet, linked the decision to the launch of a £200 million (US$247 million) whole genome sequencing project, saying scientific breakthroughs “wouldn’t be possible without being open to the brightest and the best from across the globe to study and work in the UK” and that was why they were unveiling a “new route for international students to unlock their potential and start their careers in the UK”.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “It is a testament to our world-leading universities that so many students from abroad want to study here. The important contribution international students make to our country and universities is both cultural and economic.

“Their presence benefits Britain, which is why we’ve increased the period of time these students can remain in the UK after their studies.”

Students will need to have successfully completed a degree from a trusted UK university or higher education provider which has a proven track record in upholding immigration checks and other rules on studying in the UK.

Competitive disadvantage

Responding to the decision, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "This is very positive news. Evidence shows that international students bring significant positive social outcomes to the UK as well as £26 billion [US$32 billion] in economic contributions, but for too long the lack of post-study work opportunities in the UK has put us at a competitive disadvantage in attracting those students.”

Maddalaine Ansell, director, education, at the British Council, said: “This new immigration route will also support the UK's ambitions to increase the number of international students studying in the UK each year to 600,000 by 2030.”

In Australia international graduates can obtain a post-study work visa for up to four years. In Canada and New Zealand post-study work visas can be extended for up to three years.

This decision in the UK reverses a decision in 2012, when the UK government scrapped the post-study work visa which had allowed international (non-European Union) students to stay in the UK and work for up to two years after graduation. In 2011, under the previous Tier 1 Post-Study Work Visa, the numbers of students transferring into work visas was 46,875. Following the 2012 changes, that fell in 2013 to just 6,238.

It is thought the tightening of the eligibility rules for post-study work opportunities in the UK may have had a significant impact on prospective applicants from certain countries, including India.

Last year Universities UK calculated that around 54,000 international students would transfer into work if the proposed visa was brought in.

Jarvis said on Tuesday: "The introduction of a two-year post-study work visa is something Universities UK has long campaigned for and we strongly welcome this policy change, which will put us back where we belong, as a first choice study destination.

“Not only will a wide range of employers now benefit from access to talented graduates from around the world, these students hold lifelong links with the UK, with a recent study showing 77% of graduates want to retain business links with us and 88% would return for tourism."

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “At last, Godot has finally arrived. All the evidence, including our own, has long suggested we need a better regime for international students past and present.

“We’ve been standing still and therefore falling behind our fast-growing competitors, such as Australia, in recent years because the offer to international students has been so uncompetitive. The evidence for a change of approach is overwhelming.”

He said the economy, universities and students will all benefit from a more sensible approach.

It is likely to have the biggest impact on the number of students coming from the Indian subcontinent.

More attractive destination

In 2018 university leaders called for a new visa to allow international students to gain work experience for up to two years after graduation. At the time it said the new visa would allow a wider range of employers – in all parts of the UK – to benefit from access to talented graduates from around the world, including small and medium employers who do not have Tier 2 sponsorship licences, usually due to the high costs and bureaucracy involved.

They argued that it would also make the UK a more attractive destination for international students and graduates, enabling it to compete with other popular destinations such as the United States, Australia and Canada, which have more welcoming student visa policies – although in fact the US has been tightening its visa regime and has built up a backlog in work permits for students and scholars over the past year.

Professor Dame Janet Beer, then president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said at the time: "The ability to work in a skilled job for a limited period after graduation is, for many prospective international students, an important part of the overall package when deciding where to study.”

She said a new graduate visa would make the UK more attractive to students and would “allow a wider range of employers, in all parts of the UK, to benefit from access to talented graduates from around the world”.

The call was backed by then universities minister Sam Gyimah.

This story was updated on 11 September 2019.