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.

Evaluation of the evidence base

This study aimed at reviewing and evaluating evidence related to: 

  • each competitor country’s post-study work ‘offer’ to international students, its priorities and objectives, and reasons behind any changes to the programme;
  • numbers of international students who have benefitted from the post-study work ‘offer’ in each of the competitor countries and changes in numbers; 
  • evidence on retention rates of international students and how these may be connected to post-study work;
  • any cross-cutting issues related to attracting and retaining international students.

The review was broad in scope and covered a large number of diverse sources from each country as well as international literature and data sources. These included:

  • governmental websites with information on post-study work programmes;
  • available statistical datasets on international (student) migration, take up of post-study work programmes, and student retention rates in each of the countries;
  • administrative reviews and reports on international students and their post-study pathways;
  • policy documents, such as notes from policy debates related to international students and post-study pathways and relevant EU Directives;
  • academic literature on international student migration, attracting and retaining international students, and their post-study pathways;
  • related comparative studies by international organisations and institutions, such as the OECD, the European Commission (EC), the European Migration Network (EMN), or Institute of International Education (IEE);
  • university, legal and governmental agency websites providing information to international students, e.g. on formal entry requirements including visas, opportunities for post-study employment etc.;
  • online newspaper commentaries on policy changes to post-study work programmes.

The review demonstrated that, generally speaking, the evidence base is patchy and insufficient, which makes it challenging to draw international comparisons in a consistent way. Few countries have evidenced each policy change related to international students, including their post-study work offer, and/or have closely monitored the effects of implemented changes. As the literature concludes: 

Notwithstanding the importance attributed to international student migration and a growing scholarly interest in this issue, research on international student policymaking and changes in it remains limited. This situation is unfortunate given the role policies play in migration choices and patterns.[5]

The above conclusion also holds true for the availability of statistical data tracking international students’ post-study pathways and destinations, especially in the longer term. Most of the countries under review collect data on students’ immediate post-study destinations yet there is much less availability of data on their destinations after a longer period of time, e.g. after 5 years. Moreover, where such statistical data is available, it rarely records specific programmes which international students have used within this 5-year interval. This means that while data on international student numbers and numbers of post-study work programme enrolments is mostly available, data tracking the links between the use of these programmes and student pathways after completing them is much more limited. Therefore, there is in fact very little (publicly available) statistical data evidencing the potential impact of post-study work programmes internationally.

This is largely true for both traditional and ‘new’ (European) countries of immigration. The lack of relevant and/or comparable data for EU Member States has been identified as a particular issue by the European Commission: ‘there is a particular need for improved data collection on international learner, researcher and staff mobility flows, and on international academic cooperation’.[6] As a recent report from Norway, which has the most advanced system of tracking the pathways of international graduates among EU countries, concludes: ‘There is insufficient reliable material about the stay rates of international graduates in other Member States’.[7] 

Even for the traditional immigration countries, which have highly developed systems of monitoring immigration, until recently very few studies have attempted to calculate how many international students actually remain in the host country longer-term.[8] Moreover, most available data on international students in these countries does not trace the links between usage of post-study work programmes and student pathways - with the exception of Canada. Relevant statistical datasets in Australia, New Zealand and the US trace visa category changes of international students (e.g. study to work, study to residence) rather than changes to and/or from particular visa programmes (such as post-study work schemes). Canada is the only of these countries that has data available to this level of detail. 

In terms of international comparisons of available statistical data, a further challenge is the lack of consistency in how countries define ‘international students’ and calculate student ‘retention’. Such differences make direct comparison of available country-level data on international students difficult, if not impossible. Given these inconsistencies the OECD, for instance, was unable to establish an internationally accepted indicator for international student stay rates; the indicator applied in OECD country comparisons has been subject to wide methodological debate. What is more, due to methodological differences and varying national data sources, data variation is frequent even at country level.[9] 

An added difficulty in the case of this review was accessing information and data sources in English. For the non-English speaking countries under review here, that is France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, relevant statistical databases are available in the respective native languages exclusively. However, as has been mentioned above, these sources have their limitations. While some of the countries under comparison might collect detailed data on international student pathways which could potentially lend itself to such analysis, this data is not publicly available. Details of datasets included in this analysis and their limitations will be provided for each country separately in the country overview sections. 

However, we must emphasise that analysis of statistical data alone may not be sufficient for determining the links between a given policy or policy change and retention rates of international students. This is for at least two reasons. Firstly, intersecting policies may be at play at any one point in time making it impossible to single out and evaluate the effects of one particular policy. Secondly, the effects of given policies are not independent of external conditions. The economic, political and social situation in both the home and host country (as well as other countries) at the time of graduation also impacts on students’ decisions to stay or leave. Therefore, these cannot be separated from the broader context and attributed to policies aimed at retention alone. Canada, which has the most advanced system of tracking and evidencing policy change among all the countries under review here, is a prime example of looking at policies more broadly and applies both quantitative and qualitative methods in specific policy evaluations.[10] It may thus be argued that effective monitoring of the impacts of post-study work programmes requires both detailed statistical data but also longitudinal qualitative studies exploring the factors behind mobility decisions (both international and internal). 

Summing up, while it is generally agreed that international students constitute an important source of income for host countries as well as a potential pool of highly skilled workers, there is in fact little systematic evidence on the effects of post-study work programmes on international students’ pathways post-graduation. In carrying out this review, we note the data limitations discussed here and focus on analysis of available data, and a broad overview of factors impacting on attracting and retaining students. 



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