Between 2010 and 2016 (the latest annual figures we have for visa applicants), the number of applicants for Tier 4 visas for university study has increased by 17%, with some groups of universities seeing greater increases than this. However, this hasn't resulted in a commensurate increase in international student enrolments. In fact, total enrolments of international students only rose by 4% between 2010–11 and 2015–16, and new enrolments – which we'd argue are more representative of recent trends – decreased by 1%. If you look at just the last three years of visa data, the picture is more negative: the number of applicants for visas for university study fell by 0.3% between 2013 and 2016.
One obvious reason for the different trends in visa applicants and actual enrolments is that applying for a visa is not the same as getting one. Because of the way the Home Office publishes its data we can't produce a visa application refusal rate for higher education, but information from meetings with the Home Office suggests that around 3% of all applicants for a higher education study visa have their application refused. Being refused does not mean that an applicant is not a genuine student, and some of those who initial application is refused go on to apply again, pushing up applicant numbers.
Another reason for the discrepancy are changes in the visa rules. Over the period in question, the Home Office has become increasingly stringent about when a student going from one course to another needs to make a fresh visa application. Whereas many students who were doing pre-sessional courses at a university before taking up a place on a degree course could previously apply for a single visa to cover both courses, most now have to make separate applications. Some of the growth in visa applicants is likely to be related to this and so will be coming from the same student applying multiple times rather than an actual increase in applicant or student numbers.
A further reason for the discrepancy is that even having been granted a visa, not all applicants will take up their place. A UK Border Agency report in 2010 found that 9% of university students granted a visa for study didn't actually enter the UK to take up their place. This might be because their circumstances had changed since they had made their application, or because they'd gone on to study somewhere else instead (some of those applying to study in the UK will also be applying to universities in other, competitor, countries).
In the most recent analysis the UK remains second in the world at attracting international students, with 10.3% of the world's internationally mobile students, and more international students would recommend studying in the UK than any of its major English-speaking rivals. But we can't rest on our laurels: more and more students globally are looking to study outside of their home countries (growth is projected to reach 8 million by 2025), and our competitors are working hard to attract them. Australia, Canada, China, Japan and others all have strategies designed to attract more international students, and New Zealand is developing one.
Today's Home Office data shows that, compared to the same period last year, there's been a very slight rise (+0.7%) in the number of applicants for student visas for higher education study in the UK. We won't know what that means for actual enrolments for a couple of years, but given the experience of previous years, we can't celebrate just yet.