Reviving the UK’s STEM industry - Lab Innovations UK

Reviving the UK’s STEM industry

Is the new two-year post-study work visa enough? 

In September 2019, the UK Government announced a more generous post-study work visa for international graduates. The new visa will allow them to stay in the UK for up to two years after graduation to find work, significantly extending the previous threshold, which allowed them to stay for only four months. Here Katie Gray, marketing manager for Lab Innovations 2020, discusses whether this is enough to attract and retain talented graduates and close the UK’s STEM skills gap.


According to a recent survey reported by The Engineer, the shortage of skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematical disciplines is costing UK businesses £1.5 billion a year. This figure includes the costs of recruitment, temporary staffing and additional training, but doesn’t account for the lack of innovation due to talent shortage, an incalculable loss for UK’s enterprises.

Reviving the UK’s STEM industry

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To address the STEM skills gap, the UK Government introduced a two-year post-study work permit for international students. The old Tier 1 post-study work visa was in fact closed in 2012, reducing the period students could stay in the UK from two years to four months before needing to transition to a Tier 2 work visa.

This has made the UK less attractive to international students, considering that other English-speaking countries have gone the opposite way. The US, for example, grants STEM students three years after the completion of their degree to start working or continue their studies, while international students in Canada are automatically granted a three-year work permit if they spend at least two years in full-time education.

Even in countries where English is not the official language, STEM courses completely taught in English are becoming the norm, and conditions for international students are more competitive than in the UK.

In Germany, for example, international graduates can stay for up to 18 months after graduation, regardless of employment status. Moreover, many public German universities don’t charge tuition fees and offer subsidised housing, meals and even study material for international students. Combine this with Germany’s world-class STEM programmes and thriving chemical, mechanical and automotive industry, and it’s easy to see why international talent is flocking there instead of to the UK.

A brighter horizon?
After seven years of restrictive post-study visas, the UK is finally stepping up its international game. The HR departments of many STEM companies are rejoicing, and hope for a truce in the war of talent they’ve been fighting for years. However, there are still serious obstacles for international graduates hoping to start their careers in the UK.

The challenge begins right at enrolment, with UK’s tuition fees being among the highest in Europe. International undergraduate fees start at around £10,000 and reach up to £38,000 for medical degrees, with limited funding opportunities available. International students are only allowed to work 20 hours a week alongside their studies, which is often not enough to support themselves and pay for their tuition.

Housing can also be challenging. During the 2017-18 academic year, a survey by Savills Estate Agents revealed that most international students were unable to provide a UK guarantor to secure accommodation, which may still be required even if they pay their deposit and the initial rent period in advance. With limited housing available on campuses, those without a UK guarantor would have to pay up to £26,000 as security for a private accommodation.

If international students manage to overcome these challenges and graduate, they will be faced with yet another obstacle – the £30,000 migrant salary threshold. This means that, if they want to continue working in the UK after their post-study visa expires, they’ll need to land a job that pays more than £30,000. In many cases, this is more than graduates at junior or mid-seniority positions can expect to earn, especially outside of London.

New challenges
International collaboration plays an important role in producing excellent research, and the lack of international talent might seriously impact the success of the UK’s strategy for scientific and technological innovation.

Between 2006 and 2016, UK researchers produced 1.6 million publications indexed on Web of Science, 50 per cent of which was co-authored by an international researcher. Moreover, the most highly cited papers are produced by the collaboration between UK and international researchers.

This demonstrates the importance of international talent for the UK’s STEM sector, especially in R&D, and explains why innovative companies and research bodies are keen on hiring skilled international researchers.

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed by the Tier 2 visa cap might mean that employers might have to face a limited talent pool, while the £30,000 salary threshold could hinder the recruitment of international research assistants and technicians, since salaries for these positions are generally below that threshold.

The new post-graduate visa is certainly a step in the right direction, but it probably won’t be the panacea to fill the UK’s STEM skills gap. Broader reforms are needed to facilitate the educational and career paths of international students, which look at them not only as carriers of much needed skills, but also as individuals with concrete needs.

Encouraging enrolment into STEM programmes for other social groups, such as females, can further contribute to revive and diversify the UK’s STEM sector, successfully filling its skills shortage.

Finally, more needs to be done to introduce STEM graduates to potential employers, bridging the gap between academia and industry. Trade shows like Lab Innovations, the UK’s only event for the entire lab industry, can introduce visitors to some of the country’s top industry players. The show helps visitors familiarise themselves with the most cutting-edge innovations in their fields of interest and provides free lectures on a variety of topical themes. The knowledge and insight gained from shows like Lab Innovations can be a great asset when pitching yourself to the most innovative companies in the country.



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