The UK Risks Missing Out on a Generation of International Students

Lily Russell-Jones discusses why international training graduates who have scarce opportunity to remain in the UK for work following graduation. 

Nathan (not his real name) had hoped to build a life in the UK after graduation. By March 2020 he had lived here for more than 5 years, first as an undergraduate and later as a master’s student, he had come to think of Britain as his home.

However, like many international students graduating in the era of coronavirus, the pandemic has forced him to put these plans on hold and return to Singapore.

In the first six months after graduation Nathan thinks he must have applied for between 40 and 50 jobs, but was unable to secure sponsorship for a coveted Tier 2 visa which would have ensured his right to work in the UK. Finally, in March Nathan was forced to give up the search: all of his in-process applications were frozen as the jobs market contracted under the grip of the coronavirus.

For international students who were stranded, or chose to remain in the UK, job prospects remain bleak. Not only has coronavirus led to recruitment freezes across multiple sectors, but the uncertainty created by the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and the government’s new points-based immigration system has made employers reluctant to offer visa sponsorship.

Even before the Coronavirus hit, international students faced considerable difficulty when seeking visa sponsorship from UK employers. In 2018-2019, around 485,000 international students enrolled in UK universities, with 342,000 arriving from countries outside the EU, but only 7,274 switched to a sponsored Tier 2 work visa after completing their studies.

These figures are indicative of a stark gap between the government’s stated policy aim of creating an outward facing ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit and the reality of its strict immigration system, a gap which tens of thousands of international students seem to be falling through.

In 2018 the government’s own immigration advisory committee recommended that the government make it easier for international students to secure work visas after graduation in order to attract more students to the UK. Not only do students from outside the EU bring an average economic benefit of £147,000 per person per year, but those who remain in the UK to work make up for a domestic skills shortage, particularly in the STEM sector.

The subsequent decision to increase the length of time that international students are allowed to remain in the UK to 2 years after graduation (during which time they can rent a flat and work a job while seeking visa sponsorship) was incredibly welcome. 

Yet, it offers scarce support to the students who graduated between 2019-2020 who were only granted 4 months to remain after graduation and faced additional barriers to employment as a result of the coronavirus. Between April and June 2020 just 4,140 Tier 2 visa extensions were granted to overseas workers and less than 10% are likely to have been granted to international students based on historical averages.

In order to reverse this worrying trend the government must provide additional support to international students seeking employment. This means both extending the amount of time that students can remain in the UK to seek jobs after they graduate and also ensuring that companies have greater incentives to offer visa sponsorship to entry-level employees.

Currently, firms offering Tier 2 visa sponsorship face an annual licensing fee of between £536-£1,476, a certificate sponsorship cost of £199 per employee and an immigration skills charge of £364-£1,000 per year.

Combined with the bureaucratic hurdles companies must overcome in order to become a licensed sponsor for migrant workers most UK firms simply do not bother. Currently, only around 32,000 UK companies offer to sponsor tier 2 or tier 5 work visas: that’s less than 0.8%.

In recognition that the additional economic uncertainty created by coronavirus and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit further disincentives firms from taking on these costs, the process for sponsoring work visas needs to be simplified urgently and made less costly.

Scrapping the immigration skills charge for former students wishing to apply for employment in the UK would be a good place to start; as would reversing the decision to raise the healthcare surcharge for migrant workers and students from October 27th.

Otherwise the UK risks miss out on many more talented students like Nathan.

Lily Russell-Jones works as a researcher for the Sunday Times' insights team. She is the editor-in-chief of The London Globalist, an international affairs magazine based at the LSE and a contributor and Young Ambassador for Shout Out UK. She previously worked as a parliamentary assistant for a member of the labour party.
She tweets at @lilycsrj.
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