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DUP deal to restore power-sharing still faces threats

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Good morning. A deal has been reached to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Some thoughts on that, while Georgina takes a close look at the UK’s post-study visa.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

DUP and running?

The Democratic Unionist party’s agreement to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland is a product of two politicians’ desire to do a deal. The first politician is Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader and a relative moderate by the DUP’s standards. It took a marathon meeting, with protesters outside and some criticism inside it — Jude Webber’s account is here and well worth your time. That the party has reached an accord is a reflection on Donaldson’s willingness to drive his party to that point.

The second politician is Rishi Sunak. His desire to end the UK’s dispute with the EU over the Irish border left the DUP facing a choice between coming to terms with some enduring trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, or continuing to keep Stormont suspended.

But the restoration of power-sharing and Donaldson’s leadership face at least two known threats. The first is that the DUP will continue to lose votes to other unionist parties who oppose the Windsor framework and insist a better deal is available. The second is that part of what has facilitated this deal are the very real mitigations to those trade barriers in the Windsor framework and in earlier tweaks to the Northern Ireland protocol. The Conservative government’s plan to push ahead with introducing new checks at the EU-UK border in April may put greater attention on the existing barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.

A deal has been reached to restore power-sharing. But don’t mistake that for the beginning of an age of stability in Stormont politics.

Missing the mark

Georgina writes: Last year I began digging into the fitness of the UK’s graduate route visa scheme, two years on from its introduction in July 2021. The visa is supposed to boost competitiveness of the UK as a study destination and offset the post-Brexit exodus of EU talent, by granting former overseas students at least two years to work or seek work in the UK with no added cost to employers. 

How are international grads faring in the jobs market? A Higher Education Policy Institute survey found only 3 per cent of employers had knowingly used the scheme to fill staff shortages, with a quarter having never even heard of it. Then a cross-party group of MPs flagged allegations that overseas graduates were possibly being discriminated against in the jobs market, despite legislation. Some employers said the two-year visa is too short so weren’t hiring them. Last autumn, I brought this up with researchers at Oxford university’s Migration Observatory, who were happy to probe further into the destinations of graduate visa holders who transition to skilled worker visas. Fast forward to today, and we reveal that 6 in 10 of them went into the care sector in the year ending June 2023 (26,200, up from 3,936 a year previously). 

Past international students tended to leave the UK after finishing their course. Of course, the big driving factor here is the government’s expansion of the skilled occupation shortage list in February 2022 to include social care roles, as well as the recent-ish stepping stone of the grad visa (note the Migration Observatory data does not include people who switched directly from a study visa to a skilled worker visa. These people may have different jobs to the graduate-to-work visa switchers.)

The care worker figures are even more striking when you consider the backgrounds of people on the grad visa route, many of whom have Masters degrees (although the charted survey below shows only 345 responses, other studies indicate a similar spread). I spoke to one Chinese finance graduate from Aberdeen university, who felt her graduate visa status held her back. She took to the streets of Canary Wharf with her CV on a placard to try to get a graduate job/sponsor, but after months of repeated rejections from companies and time running out on her visa, she ended up working in a SEN school. “People told me that if you do this job, maybe in the future the school will sponsor your visa as it’s a shortage job,” she said. A skilled worker visa offers a path to permanent residency in Britain.

The shift towards care jobs raises a few broader issues. First, the number of non-UK people imported to work on care visas is much bigger than we realised, underlining issues of poor pay and conditions in care behind huge labour shortages across the board.

While taking this migration pathway is well within the government’s rules, there’s also a question mark over the goal of capitalising on overseas talent via the graduate route, given how many workers are overqualified. Graduate employers’ widespread lack of awareness and trust in the visa — and lacklustre promotion of it by the government — mean they (and the economy) may be missing out on highly skilled international graduates, not to mention the soft power generated by their UK stay. Accounts of recruiters’ alleged discrimination (whether intended or not) against foreign graduates demand scrutiny. Stephen Isherwood from the Institute of Employers argued that universities, too, play a role and should work on improving employability outcomes of their international students, from whom they receive a fifth of their income.

What we’re noticing today could change as the care worker visa gets curtailed. James Cleverly announced he plans to review the graduate route, as part of a package to bring down net migration. His predecessor has repeated calls to scrap it. We have clearly not reached the full potential of the graduate route. But axing it will not be the answer. More time is needed to build trust and confidence in the route, and collect data on visa holders.

At the heart of this is the need for politicians to have an honest conversation about the scale of the funding crisis in the care sector and in higher education. That means confronting hard choices on taxation, and the level of high-skilled and low-skilled migration required as the UK’s demographics shift.

Now try this

This week, I mostly listened to the composer Michael Nyman while writing my column.

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