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Overseas graduates heading into care work

30 Jan 2024

Care work is the most common occupation for former international students who switch from the post-study “Graduate Route” onto longer term work visas in the UK, new analysis by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows. 

The new analysis, International students entering the UK labour market, looks at data from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, which show that international students are becoming more likely to stay in the UK to work after their studies. While the number of students holding long-term Skilled Worker visas within 1-2 years after arrival remained a minority, it rose from less than 1% of non-EU students who received a visa in 2019, to 8% of the 2021 student cohort.  

Among those who have switched to long-term work, the care sector has been the major destination. Around 60% of people who moved from the Graduate Route to the Skilled Worker Route in the year ending June 2023 became care or senior care workers. This represents around 26,000 people.  

The Graduate Route was introduced in summer 2021 and allows international students to stay on to work in the UK, usually for 2 years. People who want to stay beyond this point must typically get a long-term Skilled Work visa. In early 2022, the government added care workers to the list of jobs eligible for the Skilled Worker Route.  

The Migration Observatory analysis shows that the care sector’s impact on the UK immigration system is even more substantial than published entry visa statistics previously suggested. The care sector has seen worker shortages, largely due to limited public funding which has meant employers struggle to raise wages to attract local staff. High demand for overseas staff and the decision to make care workers eligible for long-term visas has made it easier for people to come to or remain in the UK.  

Dr Ben Brindle, Researcher at the Migration Observatory and co-author of the report said: “Most international students graduate from Master’s programmes in subjects like business, engineering and computer science, so it is striking to see so many take roles in care, which requires few formal qualifications. Some workers who take care roles may genuinely want to work in the sector. Others will have made a pragmatic choice to take on care work despite being heavily overqualified for it, because it provides a route to remain in the UK.” 

The trend of students staying longer in the UK is likely to mean that the student visa route contributes more to net migration than in previous years. However, the data suggest that in the medium term it will be the care route, not the Graduate route, driving this change. If care worker recruitment is driven by employer demand, then fewer students would mean more overseas workers coming directly from abroad.  

Around 10,000 (23%) Graduate Route visa holders who were sponsored for Skilled Worker visas went into graduate jobs such as management consultants, doctors or programmers, in the year ending June 2023. Another 6,300 (15%) went into middle-skilled jobs such as chefs or nursing assistants.  

Dr Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford and co-author of the report, said: “There are pros and cons of relying on international students to staff the care sector. On one hand, students who are overqualified for their jobs lose opportunities to build the skills from their education—even if they have decided the trade-off is worth it. On the other hand, if the government has decided it wants to admit substantial numbers of overseas care workers, there are benefits to the UK of drawing on international students rather than people coming directly from abroad. For example, exploitation in the care sector has been a big problem recently, and former students with good language skills and more local knowledge may be less vulnerable to it.”  

The analysis showed that graduate visa holders switching into Skilled Worker Route care jobs were more likely to be aged 26 or over. This was the case for 64% of care switchers in the year ending June 2023, compared to 52% of those switching into non-care roles. 


Notes to editors: 

  • The FOI data includes just over 90% of people switching from Graduate Route visas to Skilled Worker visas – as well as roughly 96% of people entering the country on the Skilled Worker route. Our data do not include people who transitioned directly from a study visa to a Skilled Worker Route visa, however. These people may hold different jobs to the graduate-to-work visa switchers.  
  • The 60% of Graduate to Skilled Worker Route switchers going into care is considerably higher than the 41% of Skilled Worker Route visas going to care for people who apply out of country (i.e. who in most cases are not former international students). 
  • This Migration Observatory analysis was released in response to a request from the Financial Times. 

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