Will Whitehorn: The importance of the graduate route to the UK

Published in The Times today, Will Whitehorn outlines the importance of the graduate route to the UK, determining that it should remain as it is. He highlights that the removal or reform of the graduate route would have a negative impact on university finances immediately, and a damaging impact on industry, on growth, on innovation and on the UK’s place in the world.

The graduate route visa is a success story for the Conservatives and for UK PLC. Yet, its fate currently hangs in the balance. I can hardly think of a bigger act of self-sabotage for the UK economy than to deter highly-motivated, highly-skilled international talent from coming to the UK. Scrapping or even restricting the graduate route would do exactly that.

I have spent over 40 years working in the UK’s aeronautical, space and renewable energy sectors. I have helped grow companies of scale, developed emerging industries and forged global partnerships. There is no doubt in my mind that the graduate route should stay in place, in its current form and in every UK university. Its reform or removal would hurt university finances most immediately but let’s be real about the damaging impact this will have on UK industry, on growth, on innovation and on our place in the world. The higher education sector has an enabling role for a vast number of other UK industries. Undermine HE and you chip away at the success factors behind them all.

On skills, the UK simply cannot generate enough volume of highly skilled Brits to match the urgent need of industry in key sectors. I am crying out for coders, for programmers and other IT professionals; the kind of industry-ready graduates that modern universities like Edinburgh Napier are excellent at developing. I speak for the companies and industries that I lead and that I know best, but the same problem applies elsewhere and not just in STEM. Making the UK an attractive place to study means we attract that talent to our industries in addition to our home-grown talent pool.

On research, if the graduate route is compromised it threatens a £0.5 billion a year subsidy to university research, which currently comes from international fee-paying students. The kind of high-risk, experimental blue-skies research, which our universities excel at, and our businesses benefit from, would be put in jeopardy.

The UK Government has already restricted student immigration, with changes introduced on 1 January, that will reportedly wipe off 0.5% from GDP. Not surprising when the economic impact of international students is worth £41.9 billion to the UK and the HE sector is worth 3.2% of all UK exports. GDP growth will take a significant hit from any further change.

The graduate route has my full support, as someone focused on growing successful businesses and contributing to the UK’s economy. I urge the Prime Minister to retain the graduate route remain as part of the offer of every UK university, both modern and ancient, so that all of our universities can continue to play their fullest contribution to the UK.