Paying more is ‘not feasible’: new visa rules will impact the recruitment of foreign graduates

When Rohan came to Britain in 2022 to pursue a master’s degree, his ambition was to stay and continue his career in Britain.

After completing his studies, he accepted a place on HSBC’s graduate program in Sheffield, in the north of England. But after attending several introductory events, the lender abruptly withdrew its offer last week, citing changes to visa eligibility rules.

Rohan – whose name has been changed to protect his identity – is now rushing to find another employer to sponsor him before his current two-year visa expires.

“I feel like I wasted 18 months of my life,” he said. “When I first came here, the rules were very different. I now feel like I chose the wrong place to study and the wrong place to start my career.”

He is one of many international students who expected to start a professional career in Britain, but have had their job offers withdrawn after recent changes to visa rules made it too expensive for banks, consultants and many other companies to employ them .

In an effort to curb record levels of legal migration – and under pressure from the right flank of the ruling Conservative party – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government in April raised the key salary threshold for skilled worker visas from £26,200 to £ 38,700. average for full-time employees. Occupation-specific thresholds have risen even more sharply.

Companies can still employ some new graduates at a reduced rate of at least £30,960, but the changes are already forcing companies to rethink their recruitment. The two-year visa available to international graduates from British universities is not long enough to cover many of the companies’ training programs.

HSBC, Deloitte and KPMG are among the major UK employers to withdraw offers to foreign graduates in recent weeks.

The changes have left major employers in a dilemma. Previous case law suggested that they could be in breach of discrimination rules if they rejected candidates solely on the basis of their nationality and visa status. But employers cannot now increase salaries for international recruits without doing the same for their UK staff – a move that would significantly increase the cost of employing their younger staff.

“For the sake of fairness and consistency, and due to the structured nature of our graduate programs, we are unable to renegotiate or artificially inflate salaries to meet eligibility criteria,” said one person who told how KPMG adapted to the visa changes.

There was a “crossover point” for many companies where “simply paying more” to candidates was “not feasible”, said Ed Richardson, program director for people and skills at BusinessLDN, a lobby group representing around 170 employers including Lloyds Bank, Unilever and Deloitte.

The new salary requirements will hit hardest in sectors such as manufacturing, where employers are increasingly looking abroad to fill mid-level technical roles. Even in the highly paid technology sector, there is a shortage of data center workers, who often earn less than the new threshold.

But they will also impact professional roles, especially outside London, where companies pay less. Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, said that while starting salaries at large London-based companies generally followed the new discounted rates, many regional employers paid less, as did smaller start-ups.

The Big Four – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – typically pay first-year students in Britain between £25,000 and £35,000, meaning major accounting firms are caught in the crossfire of the threshold changes. Approximately 3 percent of Deloitte’s graduate intake – approximately 35 people – have had their offers withdrawn.

KPMG said it would now only hire foreign graduates for its programs in London – rather than elsewhere in Britain – unless they are part of actuarial schemes.

The visa issues have also exposed the disparity in junior salaries within the wider professional services sector. While salaries for young employees at accounting firms have barely increased in recent years, British law firms have dramatically increased wages for junior staff as they compete with American rivals. A first-year trainee at law firm Freshfields now earns £56,000, rising to £150,000 after two years once he has qualified.

Overall, the average starting salary for graduates has risen for a third year to £34,000 in 2024, up £500 from 2023 and up 13.3 per cent since 2021, according to High Fliers Research. This follows a decade of largely stagnant wages, during which low inflation held wages down.

Bar chart of average starting salaries (£) showing graduate salaries at Britain's top employers, by industry

Investment banks offer the highest average salary for graduates at £55,000. Consultancies pay an average of £47,500. But according to the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), more than half of the 10,000 new UK consultancy jobs expected in 2026 will be outside London, in cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, and these tend to pay less. Banks including HSBC and JPMorgan Chase have also moved functions outside the capital.

Brian Bell, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), said the new salary requirements for skilled workers would effectively limit the system to professional roles and more experienced hires – excluding many people who “do not undercut”. [UK wages] or be exploited and contribute to taxes”.

The changes to the skilled worker visa regime are part of a broader government crackdown aimed at curbing legal net migration, which reached a record 745,000 in 2022. Sunak’s government has also imposed a ban on masters students bringing relatives to Britain and is considering changes to the two-year graduate visa.

According to Isherwood, international students on average account for about a tenth of graduate intake at major employers. But even within professional services there is a lot of variation: international recruits typically fill a third of roles in audit, but a much smaller share in consultancy.

Some companies have decided not to withdraw offers. For example, the medium-sized accounting firm Grant Thornton transferred applicants to offices in Great Britain where the salary scales did meet the new requirements. “We have not had to withdraw or withdraw any relevant offers,” said a person familiar with the company.

Isherwood said many other companies were sifting through potential recruits and existing trainees “on a case-by-case basis” to see if they could redeploy people into a role that would qualify for a visa.

Other employers continue to deal with the fallout, with dozens of graduates left frustrated and unemployed after offers are withdrawn.

HSBC angered some affected graduates after sending them an automated message saying the FTSE 100 lender was “sorry to see [them] go” after they “decided to leave the selection process.” “They are trolling us right now,” said someone who received the email.

The bank is investigating the issue of the automated message, a person familiar with the matter said.

Having spent tens of thousands of pounds on their education in Britain with the intention of staying and working in the country, some feel they have been treated harshly as the goalposts have moved.

One person who had an offer withdrawn by Deloitte summed up his frustration as follows: “With no backup jobs and no time to apply for other jobs as I was in my final exam period, I was left behind at Deloitte without any warning. or prior knowledge about this change. This is an extremely unfair decision.”

Additional reporting by Michael O’Dwyer

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