UK's tightened student visa rules sound economic alarm bells

By Minh Nga   March 9, 2024 | 04:30 am PT
U.K. university officials are raising concern about potential economic repercussions of the significant decline in international student enrollments following stricter immigration policies.

A survey conducted by Universities U.K. (UUK), an organization of higher education institutions, of more than 60 U.K. universities shows that the number of study visas issued in January this year fell 33% compared to last year.

Another UUK survey of 73 universities found that enrollments in postgraduate-taught courses declined by 44%.

It said this downturn is attributed to doubts concerning the continuation of the U.K.'s post-study work opportunities and the government's increasingly critical stance on the rise in numbers of international students after the pandemic.

Data from Enroly, a digital platform supporting more than 60 U.K. universities in simplifying the processes of international admissions and compliance, showed a 37% drop in the number of international offers for U.K. postgraduate courses this January compared to last January.

At the same time, U.K. government statistics show sponsored study visas for main applicants fell by 5% year-on-year in 2023.

Last year, the U.K. announced a plan to curb net migration by preventing international students from bringing family members with them while studying in the U.K., unless they are studying in postgraduate research courses, such as research-based PhDs and research-based master’s programs.

International students in postgraduate courses that are not designated as research-oriented are thus not permitted to bring dependents, according to the new policy, which took effect in January.

The U.K. Home Office said in 2022 that almost half a million student visas were issued while the number of dependents of overseas students has increased by 750% since 2019, to 136,000 people.

The chief executive of UUK, Vivienne Stern, commented in a report by the organization: "The U.K. is extremely fortunate to be a popular destination for international students. The whole country benefits from their decision to spend a few formative years with us. I regret the fact the government appears to want to diminish our success in this area. Our new data shows that if they wanted to see a reduction in numbers, they have already achieved that through policy changes introduced earlier this year."

"If they go further, they will damage the economies of towns and cities throughout the U.K., as well as many universities. Given we should be doing everything we can to promote economic growth, this seems to be getting the priorities wrong," she said.

Stern added: "The number of international students coming to the U.K. is already falling, but there is now a real danger of an over-correction."

According to the UUK, students were also being put off by uncertainty over the U.K.’s post-study work offer, after the government announced that its Migration Observatory Committee was reviewing the Graduate Route to review whether international students should be entitled to stay in the U.K. for at least two years after successfully completing a course.

The Graduate Route allows international students who have been awarded their degree to stay in the U.K. and work, or look for work, at any skill level, for two years, or three years for doctoral students. Graduates do not need a sponsored employer to access this route.

A crowd gathers at the Chatsworth House, Bakewell in the U.K. in December, 2023. Photo by Unsplash/Benjamin Elliott

A crowd gathers at the Chatsworth House, Bakewell in the U.K. in December, 2023. Photo by Unsplash/Benjamin Elliott

David Pilsbury, Chief Development Officer at the Oxford International Education Group, cautions that the decline in enrollment of international students, who typically pay higher fees, will significantly impact universities that focus on recruiting those students.

He told University World News: "For some recruiting universities the January intake had become as big as they used to recruit in September – so they will be really hurt by the sharp fall in numbers from key markets like Nigeria and India this January.

"I know that a number of universities that didn’t hit their September targets just added the difference to the January target. So this is a serious hit for many U.K. universities," said Pilsbury.

According to the UKK, international students, who comprise nearly half of all enrollees in taught programs at U.K. universities and contribute an average of £17,000 (US$21,860) annually in tuition fees, play a crucial role in the financial health of these institutions. A significant drop in international enrollments could lead to economic challenges for numerous courses and universities.

From 2019/20 to 2023/24, the Graduate Route program, along with the support of the U.K.’s International Education Strategy (IES), directly contributed to 632,000 additional international first-year enrollments and provided a net economic contribution of £62.6 billion to the U.K. economy over the duration of students’ programs, according to the ICEF Monitor.

Meanwhile, a report named "Under the spotlight: Changes to immigration rules will harm U.K. innovation" published in January by the National Center for Universities and Business, said international students are shown to contribute and additional £41.9 billion to the U.K. economy, largely within their local economies, and provide enriched experiences across universities and local communities through increased diversity.

The Migration Observatory Committee said in its "Impact of international students in the U.K." report released in September, 2018 that "international students bring an economic benefit to the U.K. and are an important export market."

It cited the Department for Education as estimating their export value at £17.6 billion in 2015.

UUK is calling for political leaders to assure international students of the U.K.'s welcoming stance and the permanence of the graduate visa scheme, highlighting the adverse effects that any abrupt policy changes could have on employment, economic expansion, and the higher education sector.

"We call on all political parties in the run up to a general election to reassure prospective international students that the U.K. remains open, and the Graduate visa here to stay. Any further knee-jerk reforms could have serious consequences for jobs across the country, economic growth, and UK higher education institutions," said UUK’s chief Stern.

Jeff Williams, Enroly’s chief executive, was quoted by the Guardian as saying: "The downturn in January 2024 signals the impact of U.K. policy on recruitment volumes, underscoring the industry’s sensitivity to political and economic factors."

John Foster, the top official for policy and campaigns at the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI), the leading business group in the U.K., pointed out that the mere possibility of tighter work rights is already affecting demand.

He told ICEF Monitor: "Uncertainty surrounding whether the government will change or withdraw the graduate visa [is] already damaging U.K. universities' competitiveness."

In fact, a study titled "The Voice of the International Student," conducted in January by IDP Education across 67 countries with 2,500 student respondents, has already revealed that nearly half (49%) of prospective students are reevaluating or uncertain about their plans to study in the U.K.

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