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Rishi Sunak backs away from radical graduate visa reform

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Rishi Sunak has walked away from a radical overhaul of the graduate visa route, after a fierce cabinet backlash and warnings that turning away foreign students could hit growth and undermine British universities.

The Prime Minister will announce plans to crack down on abuse of the visa system but will confirm that the postgraduate route, which allows international students to stay for two years after completing their studies, must remain open.

Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, Lord David Cameron, the foreign secretary, and James Cleverly, the home secretary, were among those who expressed doubts about any serious attempt to reduce legal migration by targeting overseas students.

Senior government officials have told the Financial Times that ministers are expected to support a more modest reform package that was the subject of last-minute discussions in Whitehall on Tuesday.

Among the measures now proposed by Cleverly, with the support of Sunak, is tightening the screws on agents who market British degrees abroad by penalizing those who do not offer the type of students they promise.

A separate proposal would see ministers also crack down on universities that allow students to do all their studies abroad simply to later benefit from job opportunities in the UK, according to a person briefed on the plan.

“What has been proposed is something that unites all competing parties,” said an official briefed on the plan. Sunak is expected to say he reserves the right to take tougher action in the future if the data supports it.

George Osborne, the former chancellor, on Tuesday joined in criticizing any move to implement a more radical plan to reduce the number of foreign students.

“It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that we are going to damage one of the true successes of the British economy, which is the higher education sector,” he said at an event at the University of Manchester.

Hunt also warned of potential damage to growth if the number of overseas students were reduced, pointing out that the government had already taken steps to limit the right of dependents to come to Britain with masters students.

“I think we will see some reductions in migration flows as a result of those decisions being made, but that does not mean we will not continue to support sustainable increases in the numbers of international students coming to the UK,” Hunt said last week.

Cleverly also favors only limited reforms, according to government sources. He commissioned a report to the Migration Advisory Committee, which earlier this month concluded that he had not abused the existing visa scheme as a clandestine entry route into the UK.

People briefed on Number 10’s thinking said Sunak had been considering a range of options, such as reducing the length of the postgraduate visa from two years or excluding courses that charged below a certain minimum fee. “At the extreme, there was talk of eliminating the graduate route altogether,” said one person involved in the discussions.

Sunak had also been exploring whether it would be possible to restrict the scheme in some way so that it was only available to the “best and brightest” students, either by limiting it to top Russell Group universities or to courses with higher fees.

The prime minister has been under pressure from the right wing of his Conservative Party to reduce legal migration to the UK ahead of this year’s general election.

The decision to maintain the graduate visa scheme in its current form is expected to be announced on Thursday, when quarterly net migration figures from the Office for National Statistics are published.

This follows monthly migration data released by the Home Office on Wednesday, which is expected to show a significant drop in the number of people being issued visas to work in the UK, including among graduates.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to attracting the best and brightest to study at our world-class universities, while taking necessary steps to prevent abuse of our immigration system. “We are now considering the findings of the Migration Advisory Committee and will respond in due course.”