By Luke Alsford
In December of last year, the Home Office announced changes to legal migration rules for family and work visas for 2024 and a review of the Graduate visa. Palatinate has spoken to Durham University students who are worried that the changes will affect their plans, or the plans of their loved ones, to live in the UK after they graduate.
The package of new measures proposed by the Government included a rise in the baseline minimum salary to be sponsored for a Skilled Worker visa from £26,200 to £38,700, with the exception of particular shortage occupations, such as for health and care workers. This increase will come into effect by April 2024.
For those currently studying in the UK on a Student or Graduate Entrepeneur visa, or are under the age of 26, you can be paid 70% of your job’s going rate and still be given a Skilled Worker visa. A full list of the minimum salary requirements for those who apply for this qualification can be found here.
Similarly, having a PhD qualification that is relevant to the job you are applying to can result in you being paid 80% or 90% of the job’s base salary whilst still being eligible for the visa.
The Government also revealed that the independent Migration Advisory Committee will conduct a review of the Graduate Route, which allows international students to work in the UK with a Graduate visa for two years after completion of a UK bachelor’s degree or above. The Government stated that this was “to ensure it works in the best interests of the UK and to ensure steps are being taken to prevent abuse.”
Ark Yang, President of Durham University’s Chinese Society, expressed his concerns that the newly announced visa changes will stop many international students from being able to stay in the UK after graduating. Mr Yang hopes to stay in the UK and work teaching in schools, which is one of the protected shortage occupations and will not see an increase in the baseline minimum salary for a visa.
His friends within Chinese Society who also hope to stay in the UK after graduating, are, however, “very worried” about the “very high salary boundary” in the Government’s new policies. He said that, “not every company can pay newly graduated students a much higher salary… [International students] are waiting, waiting for Labour’s reaction to the new restrictions.”
According to Mr Yang, the issue “creating more concern” is that the Government may be “considering withdrawing” the Graduate visa: “Although many are not planning to stay in the UK long-term after they graduate, they are planning to work in the UK for those two years to get some experience. This will benefit them when they go back to China and they can find a job as they are experienced in the UK. I think most of the international Chinese students are really worried about the UK government withdrawing this visa.”
The Chief Executive of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern MBE, has defended the importance of the Graduate Route. She commented, “We are pleased the government remains committed to maintaining the Graduate Route […] However, it is important that we now put to bed the suggestion that this visa will be scrapped, which will go a long way to reassuring prospective international students that the UK remains an attractive destination.
“The Graduate Route is an essential part of the UK’s offer to prospective students. Many of our competitors have something more attractive. International students make a net economic contribution to the UK of around £40bn a year, and this benefits the whole of the UK […] Universities will though be concerned at the potential impact of changes to skilled salary thresholds and the shortage occupation list. This could impact universities’ ability to attract global talent, in disciplines ranging from civil and mechanical engineers to lab technicians and IT specialists.”
Other students have also voiced their anxieties over the changes to the Skilled Worker Visa and the uncertainty over the future of the Graduate visa. Bailey Leis, an English and History third year student from the United States, has said that the Government’s new migration rules “have definitely changed my plans.”
Her intention after graduating is to go into a “competitive field already where the entry salary is £21,000-£26,000, almost £12,000 less than the new requirements.” Ms Leis now intends to extend her Student visa for a Master’s degree and then to apply for a Graduate visa, with the hope that after that visa runs out she will be able to find a job with a high enough salary for a Skilled Worker visa.
She said, “many international students are coming over [to the UK] with the idea that we will study and work in the UK, when now the system actually works against that […] now it might not even be possible for many” to stay. Ms Leis is now considering “try[ing] to find a job on the continent or back in the US”, if she is unable to meet the salary threshold for a Skilled Worker visa.
Ark Yang also predicted that international students who think they are unable to settle in the UK will instead find work in other countries. He told Palatinate that those students who want to stay overseas after graduating, himself included, “would consider going to Canada, Australia, those countries with more friendly immigration policies” if it became clear that staying in the UK would not be possible.
Mr Yang said that he understood that “the UK Government’s priority obviously is to protect UK nationals”, but he and other Chinese students now “feel less welcome than before”, in particular due to the straining of relations between the UK and Chinese governments.
“We are still welcomed by the University. The University values us and international diversity,” he emphasised.
Durham University has over 4,500 international students from over 156 countries. The UK as a whole had over 670,000 international students in the academic year 2021-2022. Chinese students represent the largest cohort of international students in the UK, with over 150,000 studying here in 2021-2022.
In the year ending September 2023, 104,501 Graduate Route visas were granted with only a 0.7% rejection rate. Graduates from India, Nigeria and China accounted for almost 65% of all Graduated Visas applications that were accepted.
The Government’s new visa regulations are also impacting home students who are hoping to live with loved ones that are not from the UK. Luca Lombardo, a fourth year French and German student, who met his long-term girlfriend Lara van Vorst on a year abroad in Germany, said that the “future plans” for their relationship have now been “thrown into massive uncertainty.”
The couple had intended to live together once Lara, who studies English and Italian and is currently on her own year abroad in Edinburgh, had graduated in Germany and found a job in journalism working in the UK.
Given that “there are no graduate schemes or starting salaries in journalism above the new minimum salary threshold for a Skilled Worker visa,” Mr Lombardo now has to consider either spending years apart from his girlfriend, before she has progressed far enough in her career to expect a salary paying over £38,700, or move to join her in Germany.
Mr Lombardo said that now “one of us has to sacrifice what we want to do” in order for them to be together. He is frustrated at the Government’s approach to immigration and that their “arbitrary rules are ruining people’s lives.”
Image: Thomas Tomlinson