The government’s new “high potential” visa offers a reminder that immigration is a class issue

Global freedom of movement has always existed for the very wealthy.

UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, called on students “to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to forge their careers here”. Photo – UK government (Flickr).

The government has announced a new visa route for graduates of prestigious global universities. Using the very arbitrary metric of whether an individual has received a degree from an institution that appears in two out of three specified global university league tables, they will receive a UK work visa for an initial period of two years.

The cost, duration and rules look similar to the UK’s existing Graduate Visa, which the government brought back in 2019. But the difference is that it is open to graduates who haven’t set foot in the UK – so long as they have a degree from one of these “top” institutions, fluency in English to an intermediate standard, and some money to support themselves in the UK while they look for work.

In immigration policy as in life, it’s class that matters
The new policy is a reminder of the role that socioeconomic class plays in the border regime of the UK and other wealthy countries. Global freedom of movement has always existed for the rich. Graduates of top global institutions tend to be drawn from the already economically very affluent, reflecting the advantages they have in early life.

The median family income of a student at the California Institute of Technology, which is on the government’s published list of top institutions, is $146,300. 60% of its students come from families in the top 20% of Americans by income. This pattern continues with other institutions that meet the UK government’s selection criteria. At Columbia, 62% are drawn from the top 20% and the median family income is $150,000. At Harvard, it rises again to 67% and $168,000. Just 4.5% of Harvard students come from a poor family (i.e., in the bottom 20% by income in the US) and just 1.8% of Harvard graduates move from the bottom to the top 20% of the income distribution.

As this suggests, the institutions the government have specified in their initial list are overwhelmingly based in the United States and other wealthy countries, excluding graduates from most educational institutions in the Global South. So, the aim of the policy is clearly to reinforce, not address, global economic inequalities.

It is also an arbitrary, indeed absurd, way to select migrants. As some institutions will obviously move in and out of the “top 50” in these league tables, this will inevitably create confusion. Even in the narrow and reactionary way that the government think about immigration policy, the visa doesn’t make sense in its own terms, excluding huge numbers of “high potential” applicants that have achieved quality degrees at institutions across the world.

In truth, this highly privileged group of graduates are unlikely to find navigating the existing range of UK points-based work visas particularly difficult. Although the new visa will make it easier, principally by removing the requirement for employer sponsorship and a job offer, it seems unlikely to make much difference to overall numbers. So, this policy is probably best seen as an exercise in headline-grabbing rather than anything more substantial.