International students will be given visa extensions of up to a year to look for work in the UK as part of a package of government measures to boost numbers of overseas students after Brexit.
The move represents a break with current policy, where students are allowed to stay for just four months after graduation.
Announcing the strategy, the Department for Education (DfE) said: “There is no limit on the number of international students that can study in the UK, and to ensure the UK continues to attract and welcome them, the post-study leave period will be extended to six months for undergraduate and master’s students, and a year for doctoral students.”
The announcement said the government would also consider “how the visa process could be improved for applicants and supporting student employment”, hinting at another possible change in policy.
Alongside the extended visas, the DfE and the Department for International Trade are to unveil an international education strategy with a 30% increase in overseas students in UK higher education during the next decade.
This would raise the number of non-UK students at British universities from 460,000 – including nearly 140,000 from the EU – to 600,000 by 2030, an ambitious target given that EU students will face higher tuition fees and lose access to student loans after Brexit.
“As we prepare to leave the EU it is more important than ever to reach out to our global partners and maximise the potential of our best assets. That includes our education offer and the international students this attracts,” Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said.
Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and chair of UniversitiesUK, said her organisation had been in discussion with the government about the strategy for the past six months.
She said: “International students contribute a huge amount to the UK, not only economically but also by enriching the international education environment in our universities for all students. While their presence in the UK is worth an estimated £26bn in direct and knock-on effects, sustaining over 200,000 jobs in all parts of the UK, they bring much wider benefit to our academic and civic communities.
“We particularly welcome steps to improve the visa regime, including the extension of opportunities for our graduates to work in the UK once they graduate, to six months for undergraduates and master’s students, and a year for those who undertake PhDs.
“We would like the government to go further and extend this opportunity to at least two years and we will continue to urge them on this point.”
The visa extension follows a recommendation by the independent migration advisory committee last year, and the government’s own white paper on skills-based immigration published in December. Currently, all graduates can stay for up to four months after finishing their courses, although those with PhDs can apply for an additional year.