Student visa 'crackdown' announced but Home Office backtracks on graduate route rule changes

A further “crackdown” on student visas was announced on Thursday, but the government stopped short of committing to radical new rules for foreign graduates.

Rishi Sunak was considering severely restricting, or even scrapping, the graduate visa route as a way of reducing migration figures, it had been reported.

But the government confirmed it has opted for more modest reforms and said the visa, which allows graduates from overseas to stay in the UK for two years after studying, will be kept “under review”.

Instead the Home Office said it would clampdown on “rogue” recruitment agents and introduce “tougher compliance standards” for high education institutions.

The proposals include:

  • A “stringent” new mandatory framework for universities that use recruitment agents who encourage people to apply to British institutions

  • Raising thresholds so international students have to prove their financial self-sufficiency

  • Those who accept international students who then fail to pass visa checks or complete their courses risk losing their sponsor licence

  • Restrictions on remote teaching to ensure foreign students “are predominantly undertaking face-to-face courses”

  • The graduate visa will remain in place until at least after the general election on July 4

Many of the changes reflect recommendations in a review conducted by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which was published last week.

The MAC pointed to “poor practices” by recruitment agents who can exploit student and graduate visa holders by mis-selling higher education courses in Britain.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said: “We have taken decisive and necessary action to deliver the largest cut in legal migration in our country’s history. Applications are already falling sharply, down by almost a quarter on key routes in the first four months of this year compared to last, with the full impact of our package still to be seen.

“But we must go further to make sure our immigration routes aren’t abused. That’s why we are cracking down on rogue international agents and, building on work across government, to ensure international students are coming here to study, not work.”

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan added: “It is right that we strike the balance between controlling immigration and making sure the UK remains the 'go to’ place for students around the world, supporting our brilliant universities and enabling the best and brightest to study here.”

The reforms form part of the government’s overall plan to cut legal migration.

UK universities have already reported applications from foreign students falling after the government introduced curbs on master’s students bringing family to Britain with them.

Hundreds of jobs are “at risk” at South Bank University as international student numbers fall, union leaders warned last week.

The University and College Union (UCU) said 297 posts could be made redundant and blamed the proposed job cuts on a predicted £24 million deficit due to a fall in international students, static domestic student recruitment and rising pension costs.Provisional Home Office figures to April 2024, published on Wednesday, indicated a drop in the number of visa applications from overseas students and foreign care workers.

But they also suggested the number of skilled worker visa applications has risen by 50 per cent in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 2023.

Labour's shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused the Tory party of total "chaos and failure" on immigration, adding: "This general election is a choice - more chaos with the Conservatives, or a Labour government that can fix the chaos and get a grip on the immigration and asylum system again.

"It's time to turn the page on Tory chaos and deliver real change with Labour."

Mr Cleverly said: "The choice is clear in this election - sticking with our bold, clear plan to control immigration with Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives or going back to square one with Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party, who don't believe in immigration controls, want an illegal immigration amnesty and have no plan to stop the boats."

The Migration Observatory's director Madeleine Sumption said the period of high net migration "has now persisted for a while" because of "several different causes" but "early data suggest we may see a bigger decline later in 2024, following the recent policy changes".

Levels of net migration to the UK have varied sharply in recent years.

The figure was on a downward trend immediately before the Covid-19 pandemic, falling from an estimated 276,000 in 2018 to 184,000 in 2019.

That year the Conservatives made a manifesto pledge that "there will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down”.

The levels dropped to an estimated 93,000 in 2020, when restrictions introduced during the pandemic limited travel and movement.

The total then rose to 466,000 in 2021, before jumping further to a record 764,000 in 2022.

The most recent estimate of 685,000 for 2023 suggests levels are starting to fall once again, although the Office of National Statistics said "it is too early to say if this is the start of a new downward trend".