From celebration to despair over international students

Just as British universities were celebrating a continuing surge in international students choosing to study in the United Kingdom, there was speculation in the national media of infighting between government departments over proposals to reduce the time foreign students can stay in the country to look for work after graduating.

A year ago, British universities were in jubilant mood after smashing through the 600,000 target eight years ahead of schedule, for international students coming to the UK to study.

Far from being a one-off due to the main rival English-speaking destinations for international students closing their borders to international students as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the first release of figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) on student data for 2021-22 shows the number of international students in the UK increased by +12% overall, reaching nearly 680,000.

Surge in postgraduate demand

The new total of 679,970 compares with 605,130 for 2020-21 and was driven largely by a surge in demand for postgraduate taught courses, particularly the one-year masters degrees offered by UK universities.

Demand has soared from cost-conscious international students from India, Nigeria and many other countries outside Europe as most full-time UK masters programmes take half the time to complete, compared with similar postgraduate programmes in many rival study destinations.

Analysis of the latest HESA data for University World News by Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of the Education Insight consultancy and an expert on UK international education strategy, showed that non-European Union full-time entrants for postgraduate taught courses increased by 46%, meaning an additional 72,535 new students.

Fall in EU students in the UK

This more than compensated for a drastic 40% decline in full-time EU entrants to postgraduate taught programmes, which saw 7,835 fewer new students compared with 2020-21.

However, more worryingly even if half-expected, was the 65% drop in the number of EU students starting their bachelors courses in the UK in 2021-22 – the first academic year post-Brexit where new EU students needed to pay international tuition fees and were not eligible for the subsided student finance provided to home students as previously guaranteed during the UK’s EU membership.

“The HESA data shows the number of first-year entrants from the EU countries to first degrees in the UK falling from 37,210 in 2020-21 to just 12,955 in 2021-22, a very worrying figure for the future, and even worse than many predicted.

“It shows why it is so important to include EU countries in any revised international education strategy,” Ilieva told University World News.

In total the number of EU students at British higher education institutions fell by -21% to 120,140, according to the new HESA data.

India catching up with China

Outside Europe, China remained the UK’s top sending country, with a 5% increase in the total number of students studying in the UK, which reached 151,690 in 2021-22.

However, the gap between Chinese and Indian numbers narrowed dramatically, with a 50% surge in the number of students from India studying in the UK, whose number rose to 126,535.

This is up by +128% on the pre-COVID year of 2019-20, which was before the new post-study work visa route was reopened to international students starting courses in 2020-21 at undergraduate level or above.

This reintroduced the two-year post-study work visas scrapped by the then home secretary Theresa May in 2012, which stalled international student growth for many UK universities and gave an advantage to rival nations such as the US, Canada and Australia which maintained such visas to help their international graduates find employment.

The strongest growth in percentage terms among non-EU students coming to the UK to study was from Nigeria whose number increased by +107% compared with 2020-21 and rose to 44,195.

Pakistan and Bangladesh also saw very strong growth, with new students up by over 90%.

Return of the hostile environment?

However, just as UK higher education were celebrating another successful year for international student growth, a cloud of uncertainty emerged and the skies went grey over Westminster as the UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman re-appeared on the pages of national media, including The Times and Times Higher Education, with reports that she was proposing to reduce the time foreign students can stay in the UK after finishing their courses.

The move was ‘strongly opposed’ by the Department for Education, said The Times, which reported that the home secretary has a drawn-up plan to reform the graduate route which, at present, allows international students to remain in the UK without any requirement to get a job for up to two years.

Under Braverman’s proposal, this would be reduced to six months and international students would have to obtain a work visa by getting a skilled job or leave the UK, said The Times.

However, the newspaper also claimed that leaked advice has revealed that the Department for Education is attempting to block the change as it would harm the UK’s attractiveness to international students.

Dr Ilieva said: “This could lead to the return of the hostile environment created by Theresa May towards international students, which led to a flatlining of international students for nearly a decade until the Boris Johnson government reintroduced the post-study work visa. Have we learnt nothing from the mistakes of the recent past?”

‘Don’t damage UK’s global reputation’

Responding to the media speculation, Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, issued a statement on 25 January, saying: “It is vital that government does not introduce policies that create lasting damage to the UK’s global reputation and competitiveness, and to local economies up and down the country.

“For many years, the visa and immigration environment meant that levels of international recruitment to the UK stagnated while other countries saw huge growth. This placed the UK at a strategic disadvantage, representing lost opportunities for collaboration, lost talent that could contribute to our universities and businesses, and lost economic growth.”

Rather than put students off coming to the UK, Arrowsmith urged the UK government to build on the success of its International Education Strategy published in 2019, which reintroduced the graduate route and allowed international students to stay and work in the UK for two or three years after graduation.

While the government should avoid repeating previous mistakes with international students, Arrowsmith acknowledged that “recruitment must be sustainable”, and suggested universities wanted to continue working with local and regional partners “to ensure that they have the capacity to welcome and support international students and provide a world-class experience”.

Avoid return of ‘boom and bust’

Repeating the pattern of “boom and bust in international recruitment would be a big mistake”, said Arrowsmith, who added: “We need stable and well managed policy which keeps the UK attractive while ensuring that we continue to demonstrate exceptionally high levels of compliance with all visa and immigration requirements.”

Dr Diana Beech, chief executive officer at London Higher, the voice of universities in the capital, told University World News: “With almost one in three of London’s 485,000-strong student population being international students, London is well placed to see the real social, cultural and economic benefit that these students bring.”

She said speculation from the Home Office around reduction of the post-study work visa to six months would be a mistake and “would cause immense harm to not only the UK’s economy, but also to our competitiveness as a study destination”.

All universities benefit from international students

The latest HESA data reveal that universities up and down the country benefited from increased international student recruitment, including those from outside the research-intensive institutions which recruit heavily from China.

Global education commentator Alan Preece used his blog and postings on LinkedIn to say that while the HESA data release on 19 January “does not give a detailed analysis of recruitment by source country for each institution, it provides the data to demonstrate that a number of non-Russell Group universities have been outperforming their supposedly illustrious competitors in international student recruitment for the past two years of published figures”.

Preece claimed the “outperformance” is on both a percentage growth and an absolute volume growth.

“It seems a reasonable bet that this growth will have been driven by students from India and other countries where the importance of post-study work and lower costs of studying are major attractions.”

Among the universities Preece highlighted as benefiting from the UK government’s 2019 international education strategy and reintroduction of the post-study work route were Greenwich, Hertfordshire and Teesside.

Dr David Bell, pro vice-chancellor (International) at Teesside University, where one in four students are from outside the EU and UK, told University World News: “The diversity of culture and experiences our international students bring makes Teesside University a unique place to live and study and we are very proud of our worldwide alumni network which now stretches across more than 100 countries.

“We are continually developing partnerships and networks across the world and, with regional offices located in Malaysia, China, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, we are committed to strengthening our international ties even further.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.