University students
According to the report, in 2023, a total of 114,000 Graduate route visas were granted to main applicants, with an additional 30,000 visas granted for dependents. Illustrative image. Image Credit: Shutterstock

LONDON: Britain should avoid further restricting international student numbers or some universities may collapse, a government commissioned report said on Tuesday, after foreign registrations plummeted for next year.

High levels of legal migration have long dominated Britain’s political discourse and were one of the major drivers for the Brexit referendum in 2016.

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Along with care staff and low salaried workers, the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has sought to reduce the number of students coming to Britain, including preventing some post-graduate students from bringing family members.

The Migration Advisory Committee, an independent body which gives the government advice, said the number of international postgraduate students paying deposits to study at British universities this September had dropped by 63 per cent, compared with the previous year, after the government put restrictions on education visas.

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The report warned that further restrictions on the so-called graduate route, which allows foreign students to work in Britain for up to two years after graduation, would lead to job losses, course closures and a risk “that some institutions would fail”.

Professor Brian Bell, the committee chairman, said: “The graduate route is a key part of the offer that we make to international students to come and study in the UK.

“The fees that these students pay helps universities to cover the losses they make in teaching British students and doing research. Without those students, many universities would need to shrink and less research would be done. This highlights the complex interaction between immigration policy and higher education policy.

Students from which countries seek to study in UK?
According to the report, in 2023, a total of 114,000 Graduate route visas were granted to main applicants, with an additional 30,000 visas granted for dependents.
The utilisation of the Graduate route is primarily concentrated among four nationalities: India, Nigeria, China, and Pakistan. These top four countries collectively represent 70 per cent of all Graduate visas, with India alone contributing over 40 per cent.
British business lobby group, the CBI, said British universities were one of the country’s biggest export successes, and with the Migration Advisory Committee saying the system was not being abused “it’s time to put its future beyond doubt and end this period of damaging speculation.”
Universities UK, which represents more than 140 institutions, welcomed the report and called on the government to confirm the visa would stay.
Its chief executive, Vivienne Stern, said “we understand the political pressure to reduce migration” but recent restrictions had already had a “significant effect”.

What was the visa rule change?
International students can no longer bring family members with them unless they are on research courses or have government-funded scholarships, which the report said would reduce the number coming to study in the UK this year.
“Going further would be a serious mistake,” Stern said.
University of Greenwich vice-chancellor Prof Jane Harrington, who chairs the University Alliance, said the MAC was “right to highlight the damage [the restrictions], and the freeze on home-student tuition fees, is doing to UK higher education”.
The report also said there was concern agents recruiting international students may be “misselling UK higher education” .

“Our review recommends the graduate route should remain as it is, and is not undermining the quality and integrity of the UK’s higher education system.”

Britain boasts some of the most famous and sought after universities in the world, from Oxford and Cambridge to Imperial College London.

Business leaders argue that they boost innovation, increase creativity and provide a form of soft power, as many world leaders have studied at British colleges.

The government commissioned the review after concerns that the graduate visa route was being abused. Some British politicians have complained that some students are applying for visas and then claim asylum or overstay.

Esther McVey, a minister in Sunak’s cabinet, said on Monday that some British universities were “selling immigration to international students rather than education”.

A spokesman for Sunak said the government would consider the report and respond. But the spokesman highlighted concerns about the scheme, pointing out that more than 40 per cent of international students using the route were either not working or earning below 15,000 pounds ($18,834) a year after graduation.

The Migration Advisory Committee found there was no evidence of widespread abuse specifically for the graduate route.