Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • In 2012, then-Home Secretary Theresa May reduced the period of time that international graduates of UK universities could remain in the country to work from two years to four months. This policy has now been reversed, and all eligible international graduates will be able to stay in the country to work or seek work for two years beginning in 2020/21.
  • University leaders in the country greeted the news with enthusiasm, as they have been pushing for the restoration of the two-year work rights for years.
  • The UK has established a goal of 600,000 international students by 2030 and wants to nearly double the value of education exports in the UK to £35 billion (US$46 billion).

Editor’s note: After some initial confusion around when foreign students would be able to obtain post-study work visas, the UK government has confirmed that “any eligible student who graduates in the summer of 2021 or after will be able to apply for the [post-study work visa].”

A long period in the UK in which post-study work rights for international students were greatly reduced will soon be over. The British government has announced that beginning next year, all foreign students who graduate from a recognised UK university will be eligible to stay on in the country for two years. Currently, students are able to remain in the country for only four months after graduation.

The new immigration route will allow undergraduate and graduate students to work or seek employment at any skill level after completing their courses at a recognised higher education institution with a track record of adhering to immigration law. No restriction will be imposed on the number of eligible students, and the opportunity will be made available as of the 2020/21 academic year.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, issued this comment:

“It is a testament to our world-leading universities that so many students from abroad want to study here. The important contribution international students make to our country and universities is both cultural and economic. Their presence benefits Britain, which is why we’ve increased the period of time these students can remain in the UK after their studies.”

Longer work period possible for some

At the end of their allowed time working in the UK, the Department of Education states that international students “on the [graduate] route will be able to switch on to the skilled work route if they find a job which meets the skill requirement of the route.”

An upgrade on earlier policy signals

The just-announced extension is more than what was promised in the government’s new International Education Strategy released earlier this year. Then, the idea was to extend the period to six months for undergraduate and master’s students and 12 months for doctoral students. University leaders, while appreciative of the extension, had said that it was not enough to establish a truly competitive position for the UK vis-à-vis Canada, Australia, and other top destinations. They urged the government to go further regarding this element of the strategy.

The two-year extension has thus been met with enthusiasm from the university sectorAlistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, the association that represents 130 universities in the country, called it “very positive news.” He continued,

“The introduction of a two-year post-study work visa is something Universities UK has long campaigned for and we strongly welcome this policy change, which will put us back where we belong as a first-choice study destination. Not only will a wide range of employers now benefit from access to talented graduates from around the world, these students hold lifelong links with the UK with a recent study showing 77% of graduates want to retain business links with us and 88% would return for tourism.”

Mr Jarvis also emphasised the fact that international students contribute £26 billion to the UK – a figure some experts believe would be higher had work rights not been so severely restricted under Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary and then prime minister. Prior to 2012, the work rights period for foreign graduates had been two years. A recent research study conducted by London Economics for The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Kaplan found that since 2012, restricted post-study work rights have cost the UK just over £1 billion in lost international tuition revenue.

Nick Hillman, HEPI’s director, said of the reintroduction of the two-year work rights period:

“The evidence for a change of approach is overwhelming and it has always been a matter of time before we saw sense as a country. It has taken a decade to recalibrate our approach towards international students – much longer than we expected – but, by the sound of things, the day when we can move forward has finally arrived.”

International students essential to scientific breakthroughs

In its press release announcing the new work rights period, the government emphasised the great potential that international students in STEM subjects represent for the UK. The announcement was made at the same time as the government approved £200 million in funding for a “whole genome sequencing project” – the largest of its kind in the world and one whose goal is to fight deadly diseases.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that crucial scientific breakthroughs “wouldn’t be possible without being open to the brightest and the best from across the globe to study and work in the UK.” He continued, “That’s why we’re unveiling a new route for international students to unlock their potential and start their careers in the UK.”

Policy supports overall plan

The announcement fits well with two goals introduced in the new International Education Strategy for the UK released earlier this year:

  1. To increase international student numbers in higher education in the UK to 600,000 by 2020; right now, there are about 460,000 foreign students in British universities;
  2. To nearly double the value of education exports to £35 billion (US$46 billion), which will require an average annual growth rate of 4% through 2030.

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