Government may ‘damage’ local economies if overseas student numbers keep falling

The Government could “damage” the economies of towns and cities across the country with policies which deter international students from coming to study in the UK, university leaders have warned.

International student demand and enrolments are falling especially among postgraduate students, according to Universities UK (UUK).

It comes after Home Secretary James Cleverly said last month that the “unreasonable practice” of overseas students bringing their family to the UK would end as restrictions on visas came into force.

International students starting courses in the UK are no longer allowed to obtain visas for their dependants – unless they are on a postgraduate research programme or a Government-sponsored course – under the policy which was first announced in May last year.

The Government has also asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the graduate visa, which allows overseas graduates to stay in the UK to work, or look for work, for two years.

A survey by UUK, of 73 universities in the UK between February 8 and February 20, found that international student numbers are now declining following a peak in 2022/23.

The poll suggests a decline in enrolments, especially among postgraduate taught students – which the UUK reported to be down by more than 40% in January following immigration policy changes.

Growth in international student recruitment to the UK since 2019 has contributed more than £60 billion to the UK’s economy, according to analysis by the UUK, which draws on London Economics data.

But the UUK, which represents vice-chancellors at 142 universities, said recent Government policy and rhetoric has put this success at risk.

Uncertainty over the Government’s commitment to the UK’s post-study work offer is affecting the decision-making of prospective students, while increases in visa fees and restrictions on the ability to bring dependants have had a negative impact on the perception of the UK as a study destination, it said.

The UUK is calling on political parties to commit to retaining a post-study work offer so the UK remains an attractive destination for overseas students.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of UUK, said: “The UK 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 UK, 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.”

It comes after UUK said this month that it would review international student admissions processes following allegations of “bad practice” by agents recruiting overseas students for UK universities.

A recent Sunday Times article alleged that international students – who pay higher tuition fees – were being offered places with lower grades at British universities than domestic applicants.

A British Council report last month suggested that migration policy changes and the rising costs of study could see inbound student mobility to the UK decline for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic.

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

“We call on all political parties in the run-up to a general election to reassure prospective international students that the UK 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.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We are fully focused on striking the right balance between acting decisively to tackle net migration and attracting the best and brightest students to study at our universities, recognising the significant contribution they make to the UK.

“The Home Secretary has announced in December that we will be commissioning an independent and expert review of the Graduate route to prevent any abuse and ensure it continues to work in the UK’s best interests, and attracts and retains the talent our economy needs.

“We are continuing to provide significant financial support of nearly £6 billion per year to the higher education sector, plus more than £10 billion per year in tuition fee loans and the Office for Students’ latest report stated that the overall financial position of the sector was sound, recognising that there is variation amongst providers.”