Ticking time bomb of foreign students must be defused with data

It is ironic that daily reporting of undergraduate offers and acceptances by UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, has come to represent a phony war as far as international student enrolment is concerned. Everyone knows that the big numbers are going to be in postgraduate taught courses, where many universities in the United Kingdom are maximising their efforts.

While the gap in timely data until the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) publishes enrolment numbers in 2025 may seem to provide them with cover, they should all beware the ticking time bomb of the Home Office visa data in January 2024.

With an election probably less than a year away, a significant increase in international student numbers seems likely to be the perfect rationale for a vigorous backlash and more rigorous visa controls.

The sector’s own research has shown that the majority of the public want the same or fewer international students, so a savvy, populist politician with a point to make will hoist them with their own petard. The Home Office will even be able to claim that the sector had fair warning of concerns, with new changes to dependant visas for the 2024 recruitment cycle, but chose to take advantage of delayed implementation.

The numbers game

We are in an era where control and publication of data has become the name of the game.

It would be so much better if UK universities published their postgraduate taught application and acceptance rates before the visa data appeared. This would, presumably, show they have rejected thousands of ‘bogus’ students to preserve the integrity of the system and focus on the best quality available.

This data, combined with robust representative international graduate outcomes data proving that the majority of international students return to successful careers in their home countries, would be a powerful counter to the Home Office arguments.

Around the world governments seem to be increasingly hungry to appear to be led by data in their decision-making.

Australia has used the sharp increase in ‘provider switching’ in 2023 as the basis for fundamental changes to close the loophole, with the likelihood of more to come. “This change will work to stop predatory ‘second’ providers from enrolling students before they have studied for the required six months at their first provider,” said Jason Clare, the minister for education.

The ability to produce data gives them the cover to impose a range of restrictions, including a crackdown on ‘dodgy’ providers taking students from other institutions shortly after they arrive in the country and a potential ban on ‘high risk’ institutions recruiting overseas.

More evidence of the numbers game being played to support policy-making is that the Australian government is ‘particularly concerned’ about more than 200 providers that currently have visa refusal rates higher than 50%. Data gives substance to the rhetoric of Clare O’Neil, the minister for home affairs, who said: “Our message is clear – the party is over, the rorts and loopholes that have plagued this system will be shut down.”

In Canada, politicians seem to be less focused on international students, but are using numbers to make their points.

Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk warned that reliance on international students from just a handful of countries was a financial disaster in the making, with some colleges receiving 90% of their tuition revenue from international students and not being viable without them.

Canada’s Housing Minister Sean Fraser seems more concerned that more than 800,000 students accepted last year do not have access to good housing when they arrive and distort local rental markets.

For hard-nosed analysis and data about underlying causes, many people are increasingly heeding independent commentators like Earl Blaney, a Canadian immigration lawyer, who some might think has his own cottage industry in freedom of information requests from designated learning institutions.

The outcomes give an extraordinary insight into a visa system that is publicly funded but looks to be creaking under the stress of substantial visa rejections from private colleges. Just one post using data from the IRCC – Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada – showed 57 institutions with visa refusal rates of over 70% in 2022.

Blaney makes the point that “Canada has no mechanisms in place to act as an incentive for designated learning institutions to recruit genuine students who are less likely to have negative immigration outcomes”. He opposes any suggestion that the problems faced by Canada’s international study programmes are just about housing shortages. As Mary Chapin Carpenter might say: “The stars might lie, but the numbers never do.”

Getting ahead of the Home Office

We can be sure that the UK home secretary is aware of the growing political debate in competitor countries and will see this as providing evidence that the UK must also act. The Home Office has been building the case for some time using data that has the power to shock, even though some of it is partial or lacking context.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick told GB News in December 2022 that “...although the majority of students do leave the country at the end of their studies, 40% don’t”. Which plays to a public that shows no appetite for student visas to be a route to immigration.

Wonkhe considered the evidence in some depth in December 2022 and concluded, rather weakly that “…there is lots that we don’t know”. While that may be true, the Home Office has shown its hand and will continue to present the data in ways that create a sense of panic, a distraction from any failure to stop the small boats and a clear divide with the Labour Party.

The visa data to hand in January 2024 will be exploited for political purposes and the government is sure to be looking hard for evidence of students overstaying their post-study work visas.

The first cohort of postgraduate students benefiting from the current two-year post-study work visa are now at the end of their leave to remain in the UK, so it is a critical moment and we have already seen how the two sides of the potential story may play out.

Sky TV recently featured Indian student Dhanabal and claimed “it was only the visa that came with the university place that interested him, and his plan was always to stay on after it expired”.

On the other side, a Times Higher Education opinion piece made much of a “young man” from India who said that “…the enormous investment he was making would change his life when he returned to India – as he intended to”.

The data and the research demonstrate that most student growth in the UK in the past four years has been from countries where applicants indicate a desire to work in the country and hopefully immigrate. This is quite different to the profile of Chinese students who have, for many years, been the mainstay of growth and have generally gone home immediately after study.

Universities seem to have meticulously avoided engaging with this change in the attitudes expressed from different recruitment markets.

This makes it all the more vital that the sector comes out ahead of the Home Office with proof that universities are the ones acting as good and responsible stewards who accept only students with the requisite skills and intentions.

Universities might even choose to add that they are leading the way in upskilling the developing world and reducing inequality through well-qualified graduates eventually returning home. In the long term this may be one way of helping ensure that those in ‘small boats’ do not have to risk their lives to reach UK shores.

Failing that, it seems almost certain that the Home Office will pounce on visa numbers in January to castigate the sector for acting irresponsibly ahead of restrictions being implemented. This will be the precursor to harsh legislation to claim control of the borders while castigating academic elites who are out of touch with the British public.

As Michael Dobbs reminds us in House of Cards: “Politics requires sacrifice. The sacrifice of others, of course.”

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD. Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.