The Home Secretary has asked a committee that advises ministers on migration issues to evaluate whether the graduate visa route is “undermining the integrity and quality” of the higher education system.

In a letter to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), James Cleverly asked the body to assess if the graduate visa route – which allows overseas graduates to stay in the UK for two or three years after graduation – is supporting the UK to attract and retain “the brightest and the best”.

In December, the Government announced that it would ask the MAC to review the graduate visa route.

But in a letter published on Tuesday, which formally commissioned the MAC to carry out the review, Mr Cleverly said he wanted to ensure that the graduate route was “not being abused” and that some of the demand for study visas “is not being driven more by a desire for immigration rather than education”.

It comes after university leaders warned last month that the Government could “damage” the economies of towns and cities with policies which deter international students from coming to the UK.

Universities UK (UUK) suggested that uncertainty over the Government’s commitment to the UK’s post-study work offer is affecting the decision-making of prospective students.

In his correspondence to Professor Brian Bell, chairman of the MAC, the Home Secretary said the review into the graduate visa route could include any possible evidence of it “not being fit for purpose”.

He also asked for the review to analyse whether the route is “undermining the integrity and quality of the UK higher education system, including understanding how the graduate route is or is not, effectively controlling for the quality of international students”.

Mr Cleverly has asked the MAC to report back by May 14 and he said the Government will consider the committee’s analysis “with a view to implementing any changes in due course”.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, said: “After months of delay, the announcement that a review of the graduate route will now be rushed through in a matter of weeks and in the run-up to a general election is deeply concerning.

“It was only 2021 that the Government published an updated international education strategy which contained the explicit aim of increasing the number of international students and diversifying recruitment, an agenda that is now undermined at every turn.

“Higher education is a huge British success story, an area where the country truly is world leading.

“It is impossible to imagine the Government going out of its way to make Britain less inviting to investment in almost any other sector and yet every negative headline and policy reform that makes Britain less attractive to international students damages both the higher education sector and UK PLC and only benefits competitor nations.

“The graduate route is a key component of the offer that UK universities can make to international applicants and its value should be recognised and not eroded.”

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of UUK International, said: “We welcome the opportunity to engage with the Migration Advisory Committee to make a robust, evidence-based case on the value of the current system.

“However, we are deeply concerned by the accelerated timetable, which appears to be driven by political – not policy – concerns. The Government should give the MAC the time it needs to properly review the graduate visa, allowing the committee to consider the full range of evidence and engage in meaningful consultation, rather than asking them to rush their response.

“It is also important to recognise that the purpose of the graduate route is not primarily to address UK labour market shortages but to enhance the competitiveness of the UK as a study destination. Post-study work matters for many international students, allowing those who have invested in our country the opportunity to find work and contribute to the UK economy.

“Having publicly recommitted to the graduate route on its current terms in May 2023, any further changes would be extremely damaging to our reputation as a welcoming destination for international students, and risks undermining a UK success story that generates more than £20 billion a year in export earnings for the economy.”