A visa scheme set up to mitigate the loss of the post-study work route for international students granted just 119 work permits in its first year, Times Higher Education can reveal.
The graduate entrepreneur visa for international students with “world-class and innovative” business ideas was launched in April 2012. It was brought in as the popular Tier 1 post-study work visa, which allowed non-European Union students to work for two years after graduation, was axed – a change that has been credited with causing a huge drop in demand for UK courses from students in some countries, especially India.
The graduate entrepreneur scheme, which could have offered up to 1,000 visas in its first 12 months, has been frequently cited by ministers as evidence that the UK is still keen to attract ambitious overseas students, but only a tiny number of graduates have benefited, the figures show.
While the old Tier 1 visa route granted about 47,700 work permits in the 12 months to June 2010, just 119 people were granted one-year graduate entrepreneur visas in the scheme’s first 12 months from 135 applications, according to information obtained from the Home Office via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Daniel Stevens, international students officer at the National Union of Students, said the scheme was merely a “marketing tool” used by politicians wary of scaring off fee-paying international students.
“It is a very convoluted scheme that does not replicate what the post-study work visa did,” he said.
“If you are a one-year master’s student, how can you possibly be expected to create a viable business plan while also concentrating on your studies?”
Asking international students to raise the capital needed to start a business while living overseas was also impractical, Mr Stevens added.
“How many students can get the money together to fund a business if they can only work 20 hours a week? We’re looking at very small numbers,” he said.
Many international students have also complained that the application process is too complicated and bureaucratic, with insufficient time to submit business plans approved by their universities, Mr Stevens added.
But Martha Mador, head of enterprise education at Kingston University, said that the sector must shoulder much of the blame for failing to advertise the scheme to potential applicants.
Nine students from Kingston were granted graduate entrepreneur visas last year.
“We took it up very quickly and promoted it very quickly through our internal channels,” Dr Mador said of Kingston’s success.
Universities should help students develop viable business plans throughout their courses to maximise their chances of successful applications, she added.
“If you wait until the end of your course and then apply, you will probably struggle to be accepted in time,” Dr Mador said.
David Docherty, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, said the numbers of students accessing the scheme were “disappointing”.
“At a time of…economic challenge, entrepreneurs who create jobs in the UK – whether they are home or international graduates – should be welcomed with open arms,” Dr Docherty said.
The graduate entrepreneur scheme was awarded an extra 1,000 visa places from April 2013, while the Home Office also changed its eligibility criteria so that applicants need only “genuine and credible” business ideas rather than “world-class” ones, as was previously demanded.