UK migration policy risks undermining university sector, business warns


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Business leaders have warned the prime minister that the government’s migration policies risk weakening the UK university sector, undermining a key reason for companies to invest in the country. 

In a letter to Rishi Sunak, bosses at groups including miners Anglo American and Rio Tinto and industrial conglomerate Siemens, said they were “deeply concerned” by widening funding gaps and declining international student applications that were “a result of government policy”.

They said this risked “undermining the positive impact that international students have on our skills base, future workforce, and international influence”, as well as reducing the funding available for research and industry collaboration.

The intervention by business leaders came as ministers were urged not to abolish the graduate visa programme by the independent Migration Advisory Committee, which advises the government on migration, in its review of the proposal.

The government has been considering whether to axe the scheme, which allows foreign students to live and work in the UK for up to two years after graduation, amid fears it is being misused as a backdoor entry route and pressure from the right flank of the Conservative party.

Reducing overseas student numbers would cause “substantial financial difficulty” for universities, potentially causing some to “fail”, the committee said on Tuesday.

However, Brian Bell, the committee’s chair, added on Wednesday that there was limited “compelling” evidence that people who use the UK’s graduate visa route raise the skills level of the domestic workforce.

In their letter, executives including Stuart Chambers, chair of FTSE 100 miner Anglo American, currently at the centre of a £34bn takeover battle, said: “We choose to invest in the UK because of the talent, skills and innovative ideas that can be found here.

“To maintain global advantage and grow a resilient economy, the government must create an environment in which the university sector can succeed and remain at the cutting edge. There are early but clear warning signals that this position is at risk,” said the letter, which was also signed by Carl Ennis, chief executive of Siemens in the UK and Ireland.  

The business leaders urged Sunak not to change the UK graduate visa regime “without a detailed and comprehensive review of the consequences”. 

The letter, co-ordinated by the National Centre for Universities and Business, an association of universities and companies, was also signed by Christine Hodgson, chair of water group Severn Trent; a representative of Rio Tinto, the seventh most valuable group listed on the London Stock Exchange; and executives from defence electronics group Thales and energy groups EDF and Neptune. 

KPMG, Deloitte and HSBC have cancelled job offers to some young overseas recruits after the government raised the threshold for skilled visa workers from £26,200 to £38,700 earlier this year.

The number of international students paying deposits to study at UK universities has plummeted after changes to education visas restricted postgraduates from bringing family members, according to industry data.

The prime minister’s spokesperson said this week that the government had provided billions of pounds of support to higher education and that the sector should focus on education, not immigration.

HMRC data showed 69 per cent of people using the graduate visa route in 2023 had been studying in the UK for a year or less, the spokesperson said, adding that the government would respond to the Migration Advisory Committee review in due course and would always ensure the sector is providing high-quality graduates.

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