Politics vs prudence could hit UK international education

One may be under the impression that the stars are aligning for universities in the United Kingdom, with a record year ahead for international student recruitment. This is despite inflation driving up operating costs, including energy bills and salaries, while eroding the real term value of domestic tuition fees.

It has been calculated by dataHE that the GBP9,000 (US$11,460) domestic tuition fee originally introduced in England in 2012 would now be more than GBP12,000 if it had increased in line with consumer prices. Instead, it is GBP9,250.

This has fortunately coincided with a time of unprecedented demand from non-European Union fee paying international students who in many cases are filling a significant gap created by record level UK inflation.

However, ‘all in the garden is not rosy’. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has raised serious concerns about the UK post-study work offer, although thankfully any moves to cut it have to date been resisted. The higher education sector and the Department of Education have argued that post-study visa options are vital for students keen to mitigate the costs of study and to enhance their employment prospects with invaluable work experience.

It has not gone unnoticed that IDP Education Ltd research earlier this year found that 44% of prospective international students would study elsewhere if their first choice of country shortened the duration of their post-study work visas.

Dependants’ visas

The UK Home Office has already had its way when it comes to international postgraduate students’ dependants, making them ineligible for dependant visas from January 2024. This visa is partly the reason for the huge increase in overseas student applications, particularly from India and Nigeria.

In 2022, 22% of all sponsored study visas granted were to dependants of students compared to 6% in 2019. There were 60,923 dependants from Nigeria awarded a visa, up from 1,586 in 2019. The number of dependants from India grew more than 12 times during the same period.

In March 2023, QS Quacquarelli Symonds undertook a pre-emptive pulse survey of 5,000 international students who were interested in studying in the UK to ask them what their reaction would be to any proposed changes to student visas including the right to be accompanied by their dependants.

Results showed that one in four international students said that they would be less likely to consider the UK as a study destination and one in five students who were focused on Russell Group universities said that they would be dissuaded from their original study plans. A further 22% of students who responded to the QS survey also said that they saw the proposed policy change as ‘discriminatory’.

QS emphasised that any loss of market share by the UK would quickly be gained by a competitor destination, with QS modelling a 12% average increase in interest in the United States, Australia and Canada due to dependant visa restrictions imposed by the UK.

We estimate that as a direct result of this policy there will be a record intake for UK international student recruitment this autumn, predominantly postgraduate taught students from Africa and South Asia who will in many cases be accompanied by their families.

We estimate the number of non-EU students studying in the UK could rise from 680,000 to between 720,000 and 750,000 students. This is likely to alarm the UK Home Office desperately looking for levers to reduce immigration before the next election.

Immigration worries, rising local demand

If international student numbers exceed 700,000 – which is 100,000 higher than the target set in the International Higher Education Strategy – when net migration figures are published in January 2024, with the Tories languishing in the polls, Braverman is highly likely to get her way and the government will reduce post-study work to six months and may even cap international student numbers at around 700,000.

If those in the sector are looking to Labour to be the sector’s saviour, we would not hold our breath. Jess Lister, a policy manager in the education practice at Public First, in an article for Wonkhe – the UK higher education debate site – said this about the balance between home against international students:

“It’s well reported that there’s an upcoming boom on demand for university places for home students, with nearly 200,000 more 18-years-olds in 2030 compared to 2022. Nearly 28,000 A-Level students who had applied by UCAS last year had no university offer – not a large figure in itself, but a 75% increase on 2019.”

Labour’s whole political pitch is geared towards the aspirant working and middle classes, with an offer that a Labour government would make their lives better, Lister writes. “Making it more difficult for this group’s children to go to university, due to rising applications from international students, doesn’t seem to fit into this agenda – particularly when all our research on this topic tells us that parents’ main aim for their children is to send them off to get a good degree.”

Whilst it is more than likely that Labour will remain tight lipped on any government policy impacting on international students, and on winning the next election (if they do), they will implement a review, perhaps a ‘stay of execution’.

Relegated to fourth place

That said if post-study work rights are reduced and/or international student numbers capped in the new year, to appeal to the far right of the Conservative party and the ‘red wall constituencies’ essential to win the next election, the damage will be done and the UK will be relegated to fourth most popular study destination, with Australia taking significant market share.

With all this gloom and doom on the horizon, there is a nifty solution available to the sector and individual institutions. If they can prove that by far the majority of international students return home following their degree and into successful careers, strengthening the UK’s soft power base overseas, there is a chance the sector can avoid a cap in international students.

Data on international graduate outcomes is the key to the sector effectively lobbying government to avoid what would be a disastrous policy move for UK higher education.

To quote James Pitman in Times Higher Education: “The international education sector in the UK has worked hard to secure a reputation as a welcoming and academically rigorous destination for students from all over the world.

“With an election on the horizon and headline-grabbing a temptation to politicians keen to make their mark, the danger is the government could do irreparable damage to an export sector that was worth £42 billion to the UK and to the communities that rely on it. Voices of reason in all parties know this would be disastrous for everyone.”

Louise Nicol is founder of alsocan and of the Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.