Post study work visa options: an international comparative review

This report presents the main findings of a literature review examining how the UK’s post-study work offer compares with those of its key competitor countries.


Many countries worldwide are currently facing the challenges of ageing populations and labour shortages, including for high-skilled labour in certain sectors and occupations. Technological change and the transition to knowledge-based economies have created a demand for a highly specialised and diversified labour force which most countries cannot ‘produce’ themselves, at least not in the short-term and to the extent required.[1] This has created a global competition for talent, with traditional immigration countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US), European countries, and increasingly countries in Asia and Latin America implementing a range of national and regional policies aimed at attracting ‘the brightest and the best’.[2] Since the mid-2000s, the majority of OECD countries and an increasing number of non-OECD countries have introduced selective immigration policies specifically aimed at attracting or retaining high skilled migrants.[3]

Policies targeted at international students have become a crucial part of this global competition for talent. Students are not only young, and hence a valuable demographic and economic resource, but they are also future highly skilled workers. What is more, they have gained qualifications within the host country’s education and training system, and have become familiarised (to some extent at least) with its culture, language and institutions. Research demonstrates that international graduates tend to fare better in the host country’s labour market than highly skilled migrants recruited from abroad.[4] 

Recognition of this fact has led many countries to adopt a range of policies aimed at attracting and retaining international students by, for instance, easing entry restrictions, providing various temporary or permanent visa schemes, or implementing bilateral agreements regulating the mutual recognition of degrees and certificates. Many governments increasingly aim to retain international students as prospective skilled workers, hence the increasing popularity of and emphasis on post-study work schemes. In recent years, many countries already operating such schemes have largely relaxed their formal requirements (e.g. Australia or New Zealand), while other countries have only introduced such schemes (which is the case for most EU countries). 

Essentially, post-study work programmes serve three main purposes: 

1. To provide international students with the opportunity to gain valuable (international) work experience (often with the aim of attracting international students to study in a given country in the first place); 
2. To attract and retain young migrants (especially for countries aiming at growing their population); and, 
3. To become a route for highly skilled migration (especially for countries aiming to fill gaps in the knowledge economy).

The analysis presented in this report will consider all of the above aspects of post-study work programmes.

This study has been commissioned by the Scottish Government and was carried out in March-June 2019. The aim of the review is to evaluate how the UK’s post-study work offer compares against its key competitor countries. Nine countries were chosen for the purposes of this review:

  • four non-European countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US; and,
  • five EU countries: France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden. 

These countries were selected on the basis of:

  • numbers of international students they attracted; 
  • their post-study work offer to international students; and, 
  • in the case of European countries where English is not the native language - the number of academic courses offered in English.  

All the above countries offer post-study work routes. The non-European countries under review are leading destinations for international students; the European countries all offer study programmes in English, have set ambitious targets for recruiting international students, and are indeed becoming increasingly popular study destinations. While numbers of international students in Sweden are lower than in a few other European countries (such as Austria or Belgium), it was chosen on the on the basis of its competitive English-language offer. Ireland, which has relatively low numbers of international students, has also been included as a competitor country mainly due to its linguistic advantage over non-English speaking countries.  

This report is structured as follows: firstly, we shall discuss available data relevant to the subject matter and its limitations. Secondly, we shall consider current trends in international student migration looking at key information on international student mobility and factors shaping destination choices. Next, we shall take a broad overview of factors and considerations related to retaining international students. We shall consider factors shaping students’ decisions to stay or leave after graduating, including post-study work programmes. Furthermore, we shall analyse the benefits of student retention but also challenges arising from their stay, both for the host country and for the graduates.  Next, we shall move to a comprehensive overview of the position of post-study work offers and the political, social and economic contexts shaping these in traditional immigration countries and EU countries. The report ends with a summary and conclusions, and includes recommendations relevant to (re)introducing a post-study work scheme in the UK.



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