Fees, tough visa rules blamed for foreign students dip

A dip in international student recruitment - the first fall for 29 years - is raising questions for English universities and the United Kingdom government.

A study by the funding body for English universities demonstrates that growth in entrants to postgraduate taught courses in England fell by 1% (1,000 students) between 2010-11 and 2012-13. Universities elsewhere in the UK were not included.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, said: "This is in stark contrast to previous years, when international entry to postgraduate taught programmes enjoyed double digit growth.

"Entrants to English higher education institutions from India and Pakistan have halved since 2010, at the same time as their numbers are growing in other countries."

At the same time, numbers of full-time European Union undergraduate entrants, who pay the same fees as UK students, was slashed by almost a quarter in 2012-13, with HEFCE placing the blame on the increase in tuition fees that year to up to GBP9,000 (US$14,900).

Destination status under threat?

Worryingly for the UK - and for English universities - the decline takes place against a background of increasing demand for transnational education globally, suggesting that the UK's place among the leading destination countries may be under threat.

The value of this 'export' of educational services represented by recruitment of international students was estimated at around GBP10 billion (US$16.6 billion) in 2011-12.

English universities have become increasingly reliant on international recruitment, particularly at postgraduate level where the numbers of non-EU students have exceeded UK students significantly since 2007-08.

Their key selling points of shorter courses (generally three years for undergraduate degrees) and quality are in danger of becoming undermined by relatively high tuition fees and a perception of unreceptive immigration rules.

Impacts of policies

The two sectors of international recruitment have been affected by two unconnected government policies.

HEFCE identifies the fees increase as the main factor for EU students, who have to pay the same fees as UK students and can find more cost-effective alternatives either in mainland Europe or elsewhere.

And it is likely that non-EU students will have been deterred by the government's relentless efforts to control immigration.

Despite protestations from ministers that, despite changes to the visa regime, restrictions on working after graduation and universal immigration interviews, UK universities are 'open for business', the impression created is that the UK is no longer a welcoming study environment.

The report, Global Demand for English Higher Education: An analysis of international student entry to English higher education courses, says the highest concentration of transnational students is in Southeast Asia, which accounts for 23% of the total globally-mobile student population.

It records that entrants to English higher education institutions from India and Pakistan have halved since 2010, at the same time as their numbers are growing in other countries.

Losing out to competitors

The Council of Graduate Schools in the United States has reported a 10% increase in international students entering postgraduate study in the US in 2013, with growth mainly driven by an increase of 40% in students from India.

Australia also experienced significant increases in enrolments in 2013-14 from India and Pakistan across all levels of study, with commencements increasing by 66% (3,353 students) and 46% (846 students) respectively.

The report points out that in March 2012 Australia introduced a streamlined visa processing service, which means that university applications are considered as 'low risk' irrespective of students' countries of origin. Along with other factors, this is believed to have positively affected demand for higher education in 2013.

Most non-UK entrants to postgraduate taught courses are on full-time masters courses.

The proportion of full-time taught masters entrants from outside the UK, including other EU countries, increased from 66% in 2005-06 to 74% in 2012-13. This aspect of postgraduate provision is increasingly exposed to changes in international demand.

There were almost as many Chinese as UK students - 23% compared with 26% of the total - on these courses in 2012-13, emphasised by the declines in entrants coming from traditional UK postgraduate markets like India and Pakistan, illustrating the increasing reliance of English universities on the Chinese market.

Because of the generally shorter length of courses in England compared with other countries, higher numbers of international students must be recruited on an annual basis to maintain current enrolment levels.

International and EU new entrants represent 53% of overall non-UK enrolments. The proportion is highest in postgraduate programmes, where new entrants to higher education are 65% of total international and EU enrolments.

Comparisons with other countries show that these proportions are high, with new entrants to higher education in 2012-13 estimated at 38% in Australia, 31% in the US and 33% in Germany.


The report concludes: "Overall, English higher education remains popular and attractive worldwide. But the recent slowdown points to increasing challenges in recruitment following a long period of growth.

"With education continuing to become more globalised, competition from a wider range of countries is only likely to increase. Higher education institutions, sector bodies (including HEFCE) and government need to continue to nurture and support England's international engagement in education.

"The creation of an enabling environment for collaboration with a wider range of countries in research, teaching and knowledge exchange is emerging as a key determinant of whether higher education in England continues to be a key global player."

Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE's chief executive, said: "International students enrich our universities and colleges - and our society - academically, culturally, and through their contribution to the economy.

"Supporting high quality international education is a crucial part of ensuring that the UK continues to engage with, and benefit from, the increasingly interconnected world."