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Recruiting International Students Without Sponsoring – is the Graduate visa here to stay?

Employers across the care sector have routinely utilised international students in order to help fill vacancies, whether that is through employing student visa holders on a part-time basis to fit around their studies, or hiring graduates as full-time, permanent members of staff.

This practice has only increased in recent years, with the number of migrant workers in the care sector having grown exponentially since care workers became eligible for the Skilled Worker visa in February 2022, when the role was added to the Shortage Occupation List (now known as the Immigration Salary List).  This is in part due to the Graduate visa, which was launched in July 2021 and allows international students from many universities, to remain in the UK for two years after successfully completing their course.  Under this visa, graduates can work in any role, at any level of pay, without sponsorship from their employer.

What do the numbers show?

Some recent statistics highlight the scale of this trend:

  • 213,250 Graduate visas were granted between its launch in July 2021 and the end of 2023
  • The health and social work sector was the second most common sector for Graduate visa holder employment
  • Almost half (49%) of Student visa holders who switched into the Skilled Worker route in this period work as Senior Care Workers or Care Workers
  • 20% of people who switched from the Graduate route to the Skilled Worker route in became Care Workers or Senior Care Workers
  • 41% of Skilled Worker visas granted to individuals from overseas were in the care sector
  • 103,900 visa holders joined the care sector in the year ending June 2023.

The government’s response

Alarmed by these figures and the significant increase in net migration, the government has introduced the following measures in an attempt to curb the care sector’s reliance on migrant workers, namely:

  1. From 1 January 2024 most international students have been prohibited from bringing dependants with them to the UK
  2. From 11 March 2024 individuals being sponsored as Care Workers and Senior Care Workers under the Skilled Worker visa are no longer able to have dependants under their visa.

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It remains to be seen what impact these changes will have, however it will, without a doubt help with meeting the government’s plans of reducing net migration to the UK.  Further, those businesses that we are working with in the sector have noted a reduction in applications for Care Worker roles from overseas candidates but are receiving more and more questions and requests for clarification from those already located in the UK.

Graduate visa “to remain in place in its current form”

In addition to raising the minimum salary for sponsorship of the Skilled Worker visa in April 2024, the government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to undertake a rapid review of the Graduate visa route, to ensure, amongst other things, that the visa route isn’t being abused.

On 14 May 2024 the MAC published its review of the Graduate visa and to many peoples’ surprise, has recommended that it remains in place in its current form.  Interestingly, the statistics above show that there is a significantly higher proportion of sponsored Care Workers who moved from their Student visa to a Skilled Worker visa, rather than utilising the Graduate visa route.  The MAC specifically highlighted to the government that in its view “the main solution to the recruiting problems in the care sector is pay and conditions, and immigration should not be used to avoid the necessary adjustments (as is currently the case)”.  It also went on to highlight that, given the concerns, surrounding exploitation and modern slavery of those coming from overseas to work in the care sector, it is potentially better to rely on those who have spent time in the UK as a student before joining the labour market, even though it may mean that the students themselves are working at a level below their experience and training.

For now, at least, it looks like the Graduate visa is here to stay.  The MAC’s position is only a recommendation, however the government does usually follow its advice, but in a year of a general election, nothing is certain.

Considering the recent increases in salary requirements for the Skilled Worker visa, the Graduate visa, is, and hopefully will remain, an excellent way for social care providers to  employ international students and gauge whether they are a good fit for the organisation before committing to sponsorship under the Skilled Worker route.

If you would like any support understanding the updated legislation, or would like information on another matter, please get in touch with one of our expert Immigration Lawyers.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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Jessica Hurwood

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