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Sunak backs away from radical reform of graduate visas

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Rishi Sunak has backed away from radical reform of the graduate visa route, after a fierce cabinet backlash and warnings that driving away foreign students could hit growth and undermine Britain’s universities.

The prime minister is set to announce plans to stamp out abuse of the visa system but will confirm that the graduate route, which allows international students to stay for two years after completing their studies, should remain open.

Jeremy Hunt, chancellor, Lord David Cameron, foreign secretary, and James Cleverly, home secretary, were among those to express misgivings about any serious attempt to cut legal migration by targeting foreign students.

Senior government officials have told the Financial Times that ministers are expected to go along with a more modest package of reforms that were the subject of last-minute Whitehall discussions on Tuesday.

Among the measures now being proposed by Cleverly, with Sunak’s support, are tightening the screws on agents who market British degree courses overseas by penalising those that are not supplying the type of students they promise.

A mandatory English language test would be applied to those students wishing to stay after their studies, according to a government official briefed on the plan.

One ally of Sunak said there was “fat to be trimmed” from the graduate visa scheme but confirmed that it would remain in place.

A separate proposal would see ministers cracking down on universities that allow students to do all of their study abroad simply to benefit from UK work opportunities afterwards, according to another person familiar with the plan. 

“What has been put forward is something that marries all the competing sides,” said one official. Sunak is expected to say he holds in reserve the right to take tougher action in future if the data supports it.

George Osborne, former chancellor, on Tuesday added his voice to criticism of any move for a more radical plan to scale back foreign student numbers.

“It seems to me absolutely ridiculous that we are going to damage one of the real success stories of the British economy, which is the higher education sector,” he said at an event at Manchester University.

Hunt has also warned about the likely damage to growth of cutting back foreign student numbers. He noted the government had already moved to curb the right of dependants to come to Britain with masters students.

“I think we will see some reductions in migration flows as a result of those decisions being taken, but that does not mean that we won’t continue to support sustainable increases in international students coming to the UK,” Hunt said last week.

Cleverly also favours only limited reform, according to government insiders. He commissioned a report by the Migration Advisory Committee, the advisory body which earlier this month found the existing visa programme had not been abused as a backdoor entry route into the UK.

People briefed on Number 10’s thinking said Sunak had been considering a range of options, such as cutting the length of the two-year graduate visa or excluding courses that charged below a certain minimum fee.

“On the extreme end, there was talk about cutting the graduate route altogether,” said one person involved in the discussions.

Sunak had also been looking at whether it might be possible to curtail the scheme in some way so it would only be available to the “brightest and best” students, either by limiting it to the top Russell Group universities or to higher-tariff courses.

The prime minister has been under pressure from the rightwing of his Conservative party to cut legal migration to the UK ahead of the general election expected later this year. 

The decision to maintain the graduate visa scheme in its current form is expected to be announced on Thursday, when the Office for National Statistics’ quarterly net migration figures are published.

That will follow monthly migration data published by the Home Office on Wednesday, which is expected to show a significant drop in the number of people being issued visas to work in the UK, including among graduates.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to attracting the brightest and best to study at our world-class universities, while taking the necessary steps to prevent abuse of our immigration system. We are now considering the Migration Advisory Committee’s findings and will respond in due course.”

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