Exploring the experiences and attitudes of graduate visa holders in the UK

Discussions and debates about net migration figures in the UK have been a mainstay in the news and policy circles over recent months. Spurred by calls for the government to review available migration routes, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) undertook a rapid review of the graduate visa route on offer to foreign students who want to stay in the UK after studying at university here. 

As part of a series of research projects for the committee, Revealing Reality was commissioned to help the committee understand how the route was being used, and what the potential impact would be if it changed.

We used a qualitative approach, interviewing 40 recent graduates from UK universities who were on the graduate visa to understand their experiences and explore how they thought changes to the visa had or would have affected their decisions.

The sample included a mixture of Russell and non-Russell Group university students and a spread of participants from vocational, arts and STEM courses, including undergraduate and Master’s degrees and other levels of qualification. The respondents were from across England and included those from all the devolved nations. The sample also included people who were working, not working and underemployed (in a role below or unrelated to their skills and experience) from a range of sectors and industries.

In May, the MAC has published the report of its rapid review of the graduate route, finding no evidence of widespread abuse of the visa route, but raising concerns over potential exploitation of student and graduate visa holders by agents who recruit students onto courses – a topic which came up in our interviews.

It has now published our full report, which contains these findings: 

  • Career advancement was cited as an important reason for choosing to study in the UK, with the perceived prestige of certain UK degrees acting as a strong pull factor. 
  • The graduate visa was an important factor in people’s decision to study in the UK; it was seen as a valuable ‘bridge’ between graduating and the requirement for sponsorship, which the participants believed would be easier to gain once they had experience of working in the UK 
  • Third party agencies had a strong influence over some people’s motivation to study in the UK. These agencies provided support with applications, course selection and accommodation, but sometimes created misaligned expectations about university experiences. 
  • There was a notable gap between participants’ expectations and the reality of their employment outcomes. Few participants secured roles directly related to their field of study, and some were unemployed. 
  • Many participants said they would still have come to the UK even if they had known the salary threshold for the skilled worker visa was increasing. Most remained confident in their ability to meet the higher earning requirements within their visa period. 
  • The absence of the graduate visa would have deterred many prospective students from coming to the UK, as many saw the value of studying here as interlinked with the ability to gain UK work experience and advance their careers.