UK immigration policy: back to the future?

Written on 11 Sep 2019

On 11 September 2019, the UK government announced that it will re-introduce a two year work visa for overseas nationals following their graduation from a UK university.

In 2012, the government under David Cameron scrapped the previous Post Study Work visa, calling it "too generous" and restricting the post-graduation period to four months. This move was widely criticised at the time by both the education and business sectors as it was seen as a significant restriction on retaining the brightest and best talent from around the world. In early 2019, under wide criticism, the government accepted recommendations to extend the period to six months for undergraduates and master's students, and to 12 months for those who had completed a doctorate.

A sign of further change?

At this stage, very little further information on the proposed scheme has been made available, and as is the case with all rule changes, the devil will be in the detail. As highlighted above, until 2012 graduates could apply to continue to live and work in the UK for up to two years after their graduation, which provided a reasonable opportunity for them to secure a suitable job, offering sponsorship under Tier 2 of the Points Based System, to enable them to remain. This was officially known as the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa of the Points Based System.

Given it would appear that this new visa will also require a future work based visa to ensure longevity of residence, this policy announcement will be inextricably linked with the government's proposals regarding the future immigration system.

Back at the end of 2018, the government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to provide recommendations for the UK's "future skills based immigration system", to be implemented in early 2021, following the UK's departure from the EU. Some of the main criticisms levied at the MAC report that followed were regarding the retention of the £30,000 minimum salary threshold for Tier 2 workers, the significant issues identified with the new (now implemented) entrepreneur visa options, regional effects, and the effects on the 'low skilled' labour market.

Therefore, whilst this reinvented visa may give graduates a better opportunity to secure work, and thus residence in the UK, should the recommendations of the MAC report be implemented, many may be prevented in benefiting from this proposed system due to the issues identified – especially with regards to salary thresholds.

To date, of the recommendations, only the new entrepreneur categories (Start-up and Innovator visas) have been implemented which require endorsement rather than sponsorship or an accumulation of points to qualify.

MAC invited to try again

As those who follow this area will know, it is therefore unlikely to be a coincidence that this new policy announcement comes days after the government announced that it had re-commissioned the MAC to review the future immigration system. Whilst it is unclear exactly what has changed in the short period of time since its last review, this has promised to be a far-ranging review, with a special attention to be paid to an Australian-style points based system.

The UK has in fact had a 'points based system' since 2008, although this has largely been eroded down to simply 'yes or no' rules, rather than an assessment of points. In addition, many commentators have highlighted that the Australian system in several ways is more liberal than our own, with many economic migrants not needing a sponsor for their visa. Applicants simply require enough points based on age, qualifications and other factors to qualify. This sounds very much like the UK's previous Tier 1 (General) visa, which was also scrapped in 2012. Many therefore comment that following Theresa May's departure as Prime Minister; the public mood on immigration appearing to soften; and Boris Johnson's recent announcements and actions, that change is in fact coming.

Whilst it is therefore very early days in this period of reform, and very little substance beyond public announcements have been made, we believe there is room for some cautious optimism for businesses looking for a more liberal immigration policy in an increasingly international business environment.