A survey conducted by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services has revealed high satisfaction and employment rates among the first cohort of international students who were able to apply for the UK’s new post-study work visa.
Back in 2019, the government announced that the graduate route would launch in 2021, allowing UK international graduates to look for work in the country for a two year period or a three year period for PhD candidates, without needing employer sponsorship.
Since its launch, the new visa route has been widely credited with boosting international recruitment for UK universities, alongside global market conditions relating to the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics revealed that there were 12,484 visa extensions granted in the new graduate category, with the majority registering between July and September 2021.
Against this backdrop of an international education strategy based on facilitating graduate employability, the Higher Education Statistics Agency surprisingly announced that it would reduce response rate targets from international graduates as part of the graduate outcomes survey. In December 2021 HESA said it would stop calling international graduates to gather career destination data and the target response rate would be lowered to 20% as a result.
With an apparent void of information on international graduate outcomes, AGCAS has been working with university partners to conduct its own sample survey which was open to international graduates who finished their studies after June 2021. There were more than 1,000 respondents and the final results were based on an analysis sample of 345 respondents who were registered on either the graduate route (85%) or the skilled worker (15%) visas.
“It’s quite baffling really that in the international education strategy, the government said that they were going to work with the sector to really enhance the body of evidence that we have about international student graduate outcomes, whilst at the same time the HESA policy change really limited the amount of data that institutions have about their students and what they going to do next,” explained Helen Atkinson, careers consultant at Newcastle University and co-chair for AGCAS International.
“This is why we [AGCAS] decided to run a snapshot survey to understand more about the experiences of international graduates who are seeking employment in the UK.”
The graduates surveyed studied at 52 UK universities with over 71 nationalities represented. Indian graduates made up the highest proportion of survey respondents (29%), a statistic which is in line with national graduate visa data that shows a third of visas granted have been for Indian students.
Unsurprisingly the majority of respondents had graduated from a postgraduate course (77%) which now offers the most economical route to access the UK education system by providing a total visa window of three-years for one year of university fees.
Relating to their job search after graduation, students reported a competitive jobs market with the majority (42%) applying for more than 50 jobs in their search. However the status of employment nine months after graduation was largely positive: full time (60%), part time (7%), unemployed (26%) and other (7%).
By mapping graduate roles to government Standard Occupational Classification codes, AGCAS was also able to determine that many of students who had secured employment were in graduate level roles (72%).
Students secured employment right across the UK with the highest level in London (29%) and some working remotely (4%) and the majority of students confirmed that their expectations of the graduate route visa were being met (58%) against those who were dissatisfied (24%).
The results also showed wide range of industries and organisation types employing international graduates, Atkinson continued.
“Some employers might not have a particularly streamlined recruitment process when recruiting international talent”
“We could see universities and local councils [being named as employers] as well as perhaps the more traditional organisations that have always been a bit more inclined to recruit international talent like multinational organisations and financial services firms,” she said.
“One thing that was really interesting, is that we did have a few examples from the survey of large employers that were recruiting graduates both through the graduate route and the skilled worker route. This suggests that some employers might not have a particularly streamlined recruitment process when recruiting international talent.”
AGCAS acknowledged the caveat that completion of the survey may have appealed to the most engaged alumni in a university community so may not represent the wider picture. It hopes to run future surveys to build on the data. Similarly, the class of 2021 faced lesser competition from international peers as the first cohort who could secure the graduate route visa and remain in the UK searching for work.
Regardless of post-study work rights, comments made through the survey revealed the extent of the challenge international graduates face in explaining their immigration status to potential employers.
As a student-facing careers consultant, this is a problem that Atkinson knows needs to be addressed.
“A high number of respondents reported these difficulties in explaining their immigration status and employers refusing to accept the graduate route as a valid right to work,” she noted.
“We had instances of graduates telling us that they were ghosted by recruiters when they were asked about their immigration status. We saw quite emotive, powerful language [from student responses] talking about having to ‘fix’ their immigration status before applying for a job.”
While universities and organisations such as UKCISA, HEPI and UUKi have been attempting to communicate the student immigration changes to industry stakeholders the government itself has not committed to any formal campaigning.
Delegates attending the UKCISA annual conference called for continued lobbying at national level for deeper research and engagement with industry to assist international graduates.
“We’ve only scratched the surface in terms of this research and we know there’s a lot more work to be done to really analyse the data in more detail to try to understand whether there are clear patterns that maybe impact international graduate success,” Atkinson clarified.
“We can’t gloss over the fact that international graduates are clearly having difficulties explaining their country status to employers”
“From our standpoint, we must celebrate and champion the graduate route. It is fantastic news, but equally we can’t gloss over the fact that international graduates are clearly having difficulties explaining their country status to employers during the recruitment processes.”
The UK government recently announced an additional High Potential Individual visa route aimed at attracting the world’s top graduates and insiders say discussions are on-going between policy makers about extensions to the graduate route to remain competitive with immigration policy from Canada and Australia.
Graduate employability will remain high on the agenda for UK universities as any dissatisfaction from international graduates will quickly feedback to markets and potentially harm future recruitment, stakeholders have warned.
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