Growing pains: how the sector can support growing numbers of international students in the UK

Following years of stagnation, this year's visa statistics show that the green shoots of growth seen in 2018 have materialised into a sustained trend, and the UK continues to be an attractive higher education destination.

Things are looking up

In the year ending in September 2019, the Home Office granted 276,889 sponsored study (Tier 4) visas, the majority of which were sponsored by higher education institutions. 222,047 visas were sponsored for higher education study, which is an increase of 14% from the previous year, and the highest level on record. The number of visas granted to Indian nationals went up 63% to 30,550, the highest level since 2011 (when the post-study work visa was abolished). More detailed information and statistics on international students is available on the updated international student recruitment data page.

A growing number of international students coming to attend university in the UK is good news for the higher education sector and the UK more broadly. International students bring significant social and economic contributions to the UK. Not only do they enhance diversity and multiculturalism in the learning environment, but also contributed £13.8 billion to UK GDP and supported 206,000 jobs in 2014-15. Furthermore, international graduates become lifelong ambassadors for the UK, with 78% intending to build professional and business links with the UK even after moving back home. 

Sustaining growth

While UK universities are globally reputed and regularly top university league tables, the UK's immigration system, Brexit and anti-immigration rhetoric continues to impact students' perceptions of the UK as a welcoming place. The International Student Survey 2019 surveyed non-UK prospective students on their choices of course and country for higher education, and results indicate that '[the country of study] is welcoming to international students' was the top consideration for students when choosing where to study, above the quality of teaching and cost of study. 49% of prospective non-EU students who said Brexit negatively impacted their interest in studying in the UK felt that Brexit signaled international students were less welcome in the UK than before.

It is important that the immigration system supports international student recruitment in the future, and conversations on international student migration dispel negative rhetoric that makes international students feel less welcome in the UK. Several steps can be taken to demonstrate the UK's openness to international students. Universities UK has welcomed the re-introduction of a post-study work visa for international students and hopes that the new government will commit to a timely implementation of the policy. Together with other sector bodies, UUK has also identified five key principles that should form the basis of reform for the student visa procedure.

IDP Connect data shows that the announcement of the new post-study work visa has had a significant impact on student interest in some key recruitment markets, notably India, but there is work to be done elsewhere to ensure the opportunity is communicated and understood. Most crucially, if this new visa route is to lead to sustainable growth in international student recruitment, it is essential that it contributes to positive career outcomes for international graduates. This will require the sector to work together with government and employers across disciplines to ensure that the new visa route is understood and the value of international students in the workplace is promoted. 

As the growth in international students coming to the UK for study is expected to continue, international student experience is likely to come under scrutiny and should be a focus area for the sector. Understanding international students' social and educational experience in the UK, and employment and earnings outcomes afterwards, is important to identify how international students can be best supported. UUKi's work on International Graduate Outcomes is a starting point in enhancing the sector's knowledge base on international student outcomes, and the upcoming conference on International graduate employability: Making good on the promise will enable a sector-wide discussion on the topic.

The growth in international students is a testament to the global reputation of the UK higher education sector but immigration policies should continue to improve, with the UK government and higher education sector working together to ensure international students feel welcome in the UK.

Bhavya Jhaveri

Policy Intern, Universities UK

​Using the interactive map below, you can see the number of UK first year enrolments from each country in the world in the selected academic year.

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