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International graduates' experiences of finding employment in the UK

April 2023

Research by AGCAS has found that international graduates who want to start their professional lives in the UK are facing avoidable barriers and more support is needed

International graduates make vital contributions to UK universities, the wider community and the economy, yet they can face barriers to success in the UK job market.

In February 2023, AGCAS published a report based on research undertaken by its International Task Group. The research, funded by UPP Foundation and endorsed by UUKi, UKCISA and BUILA, draws on qualitative and quantitative data to share the lived experiences of international graduates seeking UK employment since the introduction of the Graduate route visa in 2021. The research provides the first evidence for the higher education sector on the facilitators and barriers to success in the UK job market for Graduate route visa holders.

The primary intention for this research was clear: to humanise the experiences of international graduates and provide them with a platform to tell their stories. The research also assesses the effectiveness of the Graduate route and makes a series of recommendations to policymakers, employers and universities to enhance the experiences of international students and graduates seeking UK employment.

Barriers raised by international graduates include cost and timing of visa applications, welfare challenges and a lack of information on UK employment practices and employment rights.

The Graduate route enables international students to remain in the UK to seek work for a two-year period (three years for PhD graduates) upon graduation. It provides the opportunity for graduates to gain work experience and develop their skills without needing to secure employer sponsorship. The Graduate route also presents opportunities for UK employers to capitalise on international graduate talent without the need to sponsor, but our research highlighted a widespread reluctance to recruiting holders of the visa.

Recent research from HEPI also showed that many employers were not aware of the Graduate route's existence, let alone considered it a way to help them address skills shortages in their recruitment. This certainly aligns with the experiences of many of the international graduates who took part in this research. A significant amount of international graduates who shared their stories with us saw their applications for graduate roles or job offers withdrawn once employers became aware of their visa status.

"I just got blanket rejections as soon as they found out that I was an immigrant… even if I didn't need visa sponsorship, even if I was just applying for a position for six months and my visa allows me to work for two years, I just get flat out no."

Recent press speculation about the future of the Graduate route visa is also likely to act as a disincentive for employers. The risk of sudden policy changes which may have an impact on staffing resource can be too great for some, particularly for small or medium-sized businesses. The uncertainty surrounding the Graduate route visa also limits the ability of international graduates to make longer-term plans.

The research calls for a cross-government campaign to enhance employer knowledge of immigration routes, and improved government support for employers, particularly SMEs, to reduce risks and uncertainty for employers and international graduates alike.

Other barriers raised by international graduates include cost and timing of visa applications, welfare challenges and a lack of information on UK employment practices and employment rights. To address this, it is essential that universities provide clear signposting about the Graduate route and guidance for students on when to apply for the visa. We recommend cross-university collaboration between teams supporting the international student experience (i.e. joint workshops and webinars) and the development of courses to introduce students to UK recruitment timings and terminology.

We know great work is already going on within universities to address the needs of international students and graduates. Focus group participants praised the support they received from their university careers services:

"My experience with my careers service was great…they would always send us emails every week saying if you need any help with your career services, you can come and seek help"

"I was overwhelmed by the support I received. It was more than I could have asked for."

Our research showed that careers and employability service support helped international graduates develop their knowledge and skills, improved their confidence, and enhanced their application techniques. This was an important facilitator for many graduates in securing post-study employment.

We know careers services are working with employers to provide international graduates with opportunities for work experience and skill development (another key facilitator highlighted by the research) and emphasise the benefits of hiring international students and graduates. To further this work, careers services could identify employers who embrace international students and offer them prioritised promotion opportunities to deliver on-campus workshops. It is also vital that employer engagement teams within careers and employability services feel confident advocating for the international student community and enable employers to understand hiring options available to them.

An additional output of our research is a series of international graduate case studies providing colleagues from across the sector with first-hand insight into the experiences of international graduates seeking UK employment. Thank you to all the international graduates for sharing their experiences and to UKCISA for hosting the case studies.

The majority of international students will return home after their studies, but we are fortunate that a small proportion are enthusiastic about starting their professional lives in the UK. They are ready to offer their talent and commitment to employers but are facing avoidable barriers. We can and must address these barriers as a sector to provide international students and graduates with the support they deserve and ensure the UK can retain its edge in a competitive international recruitment market.

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