UK share of the global student market 'flatlining at best'

Latest British government statistics show a 1% increase in applications for student visas for university study, but huge falls in applications for the further education and language school sectors – setting the scene for a shrinking UK global market share of international students.

Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, argues that the number of foreign applicants to British universities is actually up at the same time that moves to tackle abuse have cut student visas.

But analysts argue that the government is wrong to claim that the small rise in university student visa applications, from 154,575 to 155,821, means the higher education sector is ‘unaffected’ by its clampdown on visas and migration.

Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs, UKCISA, said: “In the context of the global demand for international study, a 1% increase is undoubtedly a cut in market share, and at best a flatlining in terms of numbers.”

And she warned that in a year’s time higher education could face significant falls in international student numbers if there were no change in policy by the government.

Last week, May announced a further tightening of the application process by almost doubling the number of students who will have face-to-face interviews rather than a paper-based procedure.

With immediate effect, starting with the highest-risk countries, the number of interviews is set to increase to “considerably more” than 100,000, starting next financial year.

“From there, we will extend the interviewing programme further across all routes to Britain, wherever the evidence takes us,” May said. “I believe this new approach will help us to root out the abuse of British visas, and improve the integrity of our immigration system.”

But she also relaxed the controls on PhD students who have completed their studies, who, from next April, will be allowed to stay in the UK for a year to find skilled work or set up business.

May said the changes to student visas struck a balance, and sent a message: “If you can speak English, and you can get a place on a legitimate course at a genuine university, you can come to study in Britain. There is no cap on the number of students able to come here – and there are no current plans to introduce a cap. But we are also clear that student visas are not a backdoor route into working in Britain.”

But Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, disagreed: “It is vital that the UK offers a welcoming environment for genuine international students considering a period of study at one of our universities.

“Once more, there is a danger that the UK is projecting an inconsistent message overseas. While the home secretary states that genuine international students are welcome and that there will now be stability on student migration policy, she also proposes extending the number of visa interviews to 100,000 – almost half the number of student visa applications.

“Universities are committed to eliminating any abuse of the student visa system but, based on the low levels of abuse in the university sector, measures must be proportionate and workable.”

The nominal increase in visas for university study came before the full impact of the UK Border Agency’s late August decision to revoke London Metropolitan University’s ‘highly trusted status’, which had enabled it to recruit international students through the Tier 4 visa route, by which almost all international students outside the European Union apply to UK universities.

Even before the London Met effect is factored in, the figures caused concern at UKCISA.

Merrick wrote on her blog: “More worrying is what is going on in other sectors. Even independent schools – which the government has said are not a concern in immigration terms – are showing a 17% fall.

“This is unsurprising given the link between choosing a UK school and intention to progress to university – a clear sign of the damage to pathways through the education sector.”

But she added that the “really catastrophic evidence” was in the impact on language schools (visa applications down 76%, from 15,930 to 3,748) and the further education sector (down 67% from 99,296 applications to 32,900).

Merrick said of the decline in the language school sector: “While some students may have opted for an Extended Student Visitor Visa instead of a Tier 4 visa (often of necessity as the number of Tier 4 sponsors in the sector has fallen), this is still a worrying trend, of a decline in the long-stay segment of the market, which is important not only in its own right but as a feeder for the rest of the sector.”

John Vine, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, warned the UK Border Agency that tightening up on Tier 4 procedures ran the risk of ‘non-genuine’ students opting to apply for Student (Visitor) visas instead.

He said: “Student (Visitor) visas are not subject to the same stringent rules that are applied to Tier 4. In early 2012, for the first time since the introduction of Tier 4, a greater number of Student (Visitor) visas than Tier 4 visas were issued. The agency needs to be alert to this to ensure that this route is not exploited in the future.”

But UKCISA said it found no evidence that there was a significant displacement of Tier 4 by Student (Visitor) visas. Merrick commented: “Yet, inspecting the Home Office figures, the breakdown of nationalities shows little evidence yet of this displacement.

“Of the top 10 nationalities issued Visitor visas in 2011, only China, Saudi Arabia, India and Nigeria overlap with the top 10 countries for Tier 4 student visas, and the scale is quite different – 52,484 Tier 4 visas to Chinese nationals compared to 7,430 Student (Visitor) visas, 34,827 Tier 4 visas for Indian students compared to 3,659 Student (Visitor) visas.”

Almost half of student visa admissions are from the United States: “Though I've heard it said that Brits are one of the largest groups of illegal aliens in the US, I've never heard that the reverse was true.”

She concluded: “If these figures give us cause for concern, it is not over potential abuse of the student route, but about the impact of Tier 4 on the education sector as a whole, including the warning signals that in a year's time even higher education could be seeing really significant falls in new student numbers unless there are significant changes soon in the government's student immigration policy.”

In September, just as the London Met affair was breaking, the Commons Public Accounts Committee called for exploration of the option of removing students from immigration statistics.

It recommended: “Students are included in net migration figures but, according to the Home Office, students generally remain in the UK for fewer than five years.

"Australia, Canada and the US treat international students as temporary or 'non-immigrant' admissions in their statistics and France excludes students from its temporary migration figures. The Home Office presently includes students in net migration figures.

“However, some academics and commentators consider that excluding students would improve the accuracy of net migration figures and allow the UK to compete more effectively in the international student market. The Home Office should work with the Office for National Statistics to begin reporting on net migration both with and without students.”