The MAC report ignored the harsh reality of the UK’s graduate labour market

The Migration Advisory Committee review showed little interest in understanding international students or how the UK labour market works, says Stanley Ipkiss

September 14, 2018
Application for graduate job

The long-awaited Migration Advisory Committee report on the impact of international students was supposed to herald a government U-turn from passive hostility to active hospitality. It didn’t.

Key conclusions of the report are that the government should “continue” to work with higher education to grow international recruitment, but that it should not remove overseas students from net migration figures and should not meaningfully extend post-study working entitlements.

This turns a blind eye to the government’s efforts to curb arrival numbers – measures such as the withdrawal of post-study working entitlements in 2012, or the reduction in the threshold at which institutions lose their Tier 4 visa sponsor status in 2015.

But it is the MAC report’s professed surprise at the low earnings of a “significant” number of those international students who stay in the country after graduation that is most infuriating.

It may be that the authors are completely out of touch with the graduate job market of recent years: their own statistics consistently show that 90 per cent of international graduates who stay in the country to work do so for a starting salary of £21,000 or more. If that’s less than you might aspire to, it still represents a reasonable salary in a difficult market.

I can think of one acquaintance, an economics graduate with a 2:1, who owing to sector recruitment cuts was forced into a blue-chip company’s non-graduate trainee scheme (a common ploy in recent years) for a starting salary of £17,500.

Pressured into habitual unpaid evening and weekend overtime, a 60- to 70-hour working week was the norm during three and a half years until, as dictated by the “up or out” staffing plan, she was forced out of her job.

I couldn’t possibly accuse the company of failing to pay the legal minimum wage, but these are the miserable salary prospects that are realistic for many recent graduates lucky enough to access skilled employment. MAC’s assumption that individuals earning below £21,000 are unskilled and undesirable to keep in the country is grossly unjust.

Few would deny our need for additional skilled graduates in at least some sectors. However, this only partially explains the sector’s demands for meaningful post-study working entitlement.

For many international students, the appeal of post-study work in the UK is the chance to get a year or two of valuable UK employment experience on their CV before taking their talents home. And that is all a one- to two-year post-study working entitlement would give them.

Nobody has proposed that the government automatically allow international graduates to become long-term members of the UK’s unskilled workforce, as the MAC fear. Indeed, the surprisingly high rate of compliance with student visa limits, 97.4 per cent, according to Home Office statistics, indicates that to the contrary, the government retain excellent control over whether international graduates are here long term.

The MAC goes on to assert that “demand for UK education should not be based on work rights”.

“If students had unrestricted rights to work in the UK for two years after graduation there would potentially be demand for degrees (especially short master’s degrees) based not just on the value of the qualification and the opportunity to obtain a graduate job and settle in the UK, but for the temporary right to work in the UK that studying brings,” it adds.

Why the MAC feel temporary post-study working entitlement is not a valid consideration for international students is not explained. It appears that the question has not been thought through.

A temporary period of work in the UK offers an intensive learning experience for international graduates and will contribute greatly to their soft skills and home employability. Since these students contribute so much to the UK economy, why not allow them a year or two of post-study working in the UK? The MAC offers no answers.

Considering the inflated tuition fees that universities charge international students, the MAC’s suggestion that wealthy students would undergo a one- to three-year degree-level course in the UK simply in order to abuse a right to one or two years’ unskilled labour seems not only unfounded, but a bit absurd.

It’s also worth noting (since the MAC do not) that, in all likelihood, a 17-year old prospective international student, when selecting institutions to apply to from a whole world of options, simply won’t know whether they might like to stay in the country after graduation.

Many people may not even have been to the countries that they are considering. A student can only seek to keep their options open. An automatic post-study working entitlement reassures all prospective students, even though only a proportion of them will actually use it.

The MAC report makes a number of allusions to the well-publicised fact that net migration statistics grossly overstate net immigration of international students, yet proceed to forget the point entirely and suggest that removing international students from net migration figures would make no real difference.

It’s acknowledged by the Office for National Statistics that there is a systemic error in migration figures that overstates net student immigration by under-reporting departing former students. Data for the year to March 2018 show 191,000 international student arrivals and 56,000 former student departures, which would indicate half of all net migration was attributable to international students. Fortunately, alternative data sources, common sense and scrutiny of data-gathering combine to show the emigration figure to be nonsense.

Demonstrably misleading numbers should be a compelling reason to remove students from net migration figures, if only as a comparative dataset for informational purposes. Not MAC’s view, obviously. Sadly, the MAC can’t think of a way to remove international students, and claims not to have had any suggestions.

One easy way would be to recalculate international student emigrants, using up-to-date statistics on individuals converting to other visa types and student overstayer rates (which are calculated accurately by the Home Office) to infer rates of departures.

It’s galling that an organisation can spend 12 months of its own time on a project, waste hundreds of hours of the sector’s time soliciting opinions, and still deliver a superficial analysis that draws its conclusions from flawed postulations.

Those of us used to incompetence and inefficiency within the public sector probably shouldn’t be surprised. But it still makes me angry.

The author, who is using a pseudonym, works at a Russell Group university in the North of England and has a background in accountancy.

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