British universities have seen an increasing number of international students enrol in their programmes, but national media have reported internal bickering among government agencies over plans to limit the number of years international graduates can remain in the country without a job.
British universities were in a jubilant mood a year ago, after surpassing the 600,000 target for international students eight years early.
The first release of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) on student data for 2021-22 shows that the number of international students in the UK increased by +12% overall, reaching nearly 680,000. This is not an anomaly, as the main rival English-speaking destinations for international students closed their borders to international students as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Increased interest in further education
Increased interest in postgraduate taught courses, especially one-year master’s degrees at UK universities, contributed to the increase from 605,130 in 2020-21 to the new total of 679,970.
Since most full-time UK masters programmes take half the time to complete compared to similar postgraduate programmes in many rival study destinations, demand has risen dramatically from cost-conscious international students from India, Nigeria, and many other countries outside of Europe.
Dr. Janet Ilieva, founder and director of the Education Insight consultancy and an expert on UK international education strategy, analysed recent HESA data for University World News and found that the number of non-European Union full-time entrants for postgraduate taught courses increased by 46%, amounting to an additional 72,535.
Decline in the Number of European Union Students Studying in the United Kingdom
Despite a precipitous 40% drop in full-time EU entrants to postgraduate taught programmes, with 7,835 fewer new students compared with 2020-21, this more than compensated.
In the first academic year after Brexit, new EU students were required to pay international tuition fees and were not eligible for the subsidised student finance provided to home students, as was previously guaranteed during the UK’s EU membership. This resulted in a 65% drop in the number of EU students beginning bachelor’s courses in the UK in 2021-22.
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, is shown by the HESA data for first-year entrants from EU countries to first degrees in the UK.
According to Ilieva’s interview with University World News, “it shows why it is so important to include EU countries in any revised international education strategy.”
According to the latest HESA figures, the total number of European Union (EU) students enrolled in British universities has dropped by 21% to 120,140.
Making up ground on China, India
The total number of international students studying in the UK increased by 5% to 151,690 in 2021-22, with China remaining the top sending country outside of Europe.
India’s student population in the UK increased by 50% to 126,535 in the same time period, significantly closing the gap between Chinese and Indian numbers.
This is a 128% increase from the 2019-20 school year, before the new post-study work visa route was reopened to international students beginning undergraduate or graduate level courses in 2020-21 under the Coordinated Open Visa for International Students (COVID).
This reinstated the two-year post-study work visas that were eliminated in 2012 by then-home secretary Theresa May, a move that stifled international student growth at many UK universities and gave an advantage to competitors like the US, Canada, and Australia, all of which maintained such visas to help their international graduates find employment.
Nigerian students studying in the United Kingdom saw a +107% increase to 44,195 from the academic year 2020-21, the largest percentage increase among all non-EU students.
The number of new students from Pakistan and Bangladesh increased by over 90%.
Conflicted conditions returning?
But 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 UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman reappeared 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 completing their courses.
The Times reported that the home secretary has a plan drawn up to reform the graduate route, which currently allows international students to remain in the UK without any requirement to get a job for up to two years. The move was reportedly’strongly opposed’ by the Department of Education.
According to The Times, under Braverman’s plan, this would be shortened to six months, and international students would be required to either obtain a work visa by finding a skilled job in the UK, or leave the country.
The newspaper also claimed that the Department for Education is trying to block the change because it would reduce the United Kingdom’s appeal to international students based on information that was leaked to the press.
Dr. Ilieva warned that this could result in a return to the hostile environment created by Theresa May towards international students, which caused an almost ten-year decline in international enrollment before the Boris Johnson government reinstated the post-study work visa. Are we still making the same mistakes we did not learn from before?
The United Kingdom’s international standing must be protected at all costs.
Director of Universities UK International Jamie Arrowsmith released a statement on 25 January in response to media speculation, 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.”
When compared to other countries, the United Kingdom’s international recruitment levels have been flat for years due to the country’s restrictive visa and immigration policies. This put the United Kingdom at a competitive disadvantage, costing it potential partnerships, students, and employees who could have boosted their education and the economy.
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 graduating.
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.” However, the government should avoid making the same mistakes it did in the past with international students.
The ‘boom and bust’ cycle should not be allowed to return.
According to Arrowsmith, “boom and bust in international recruitment would be a big mistake,” so the country needs “stable and well-managed policy” to maintain its appeal and guarantee “exceptionally high levels of compliance with all visa and immigration requirements.”
“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,” said Dr. Diana Beech, chief executive officer of London Higher, the voice of universities in the capital, to University World News.
She said the Home Office’s rumours about cutting the post-study work visa to six months would be disastrous and “would cause immense harm to not only the UK’s economy, but also to our competitiveness as a study destination.”
Universities everywhere gain from hosting international students.
New data from HESA show that universities across the country, not just the research-heavy ones that heavily recruit from China, benefited from increased international student recruitment.
While the HESA data release on January 19 “does not give a detailed analysis of recruitment by source country for each institution,” it does “provide 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,” as noted by global education commentator Alan Preece on his blog and in LinkedIn posts.
The “outperformance,” according to Preece, has occurred on both a percentage and absolute volume level.
It’s a safe bet that students from countries like India, where finding a job after graduation is highly valued, and countries like China, where higher education is more affordable, are behind this expansion.
Preece mentioned the universities of Greenwich, Hertfordshire, and Teesside as examples of those that will benefit from the UK government’s international education strategy and the reinstitution of the post-study work route in 2019.
One-fourth of the student body at Teesside University is international; pro vice-chancellor (International) Dr. David Bell 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.”
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