Clock is ticking for UK to make clear that visa system changes will support international students

​The UK government must make clear to international students in the next few weeks that they can still have confidence in studying at UK universities, otherwise the UK risks losing them to overseas competitors.

Universities in the UK are starting to make announcements about what the return to university will look like in autumn 2020 and how they will be delivering high-quality teaching, student support services and social opportunities. Many institutions have announced a blended approach, combining face-to-face learning for small seminars and tutorials with online provision for lectures. Earlier this week, Universities UK set out high-level principles setting out how universities can plan to emerge from lockdown, delivering face-to-face teaching where possible, while ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of students, staff, visitors and the wider community.

Undecided applicants from overseas are currently in the final stages of deciding where to study in the autumn, with reports showing many are indecisive about their study plans.

Now Universities UK is calling on government to take action to ensure the visa system allows for flexible and blended approaches to teaching this autumn, which will be necessary in order to maintain social distancing and safety on campuses.

As a result, UUK is asking government to;

  • Reassure applicants that online study will not disqualify students from the new Graduate Route – which gives students post-study working opportunities in the UK – to be introduced in 2021
  • Ensure students can start courses online with confidence by extending the visa application window from three months to six months
  • Extend rules allowing Tier 4 students to study partially online, to allow for the blended approach being planned by universities

Today, Professor Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, has been named by the Department for International Trade as the new International Education Champion. Professor Sir Steve Smith will play a key role in leading the UK sector's efforts to offer the world's best student experience, and to communicate it internationally. This includes tackling barriers to education exports, and the need to offer an open and welcoming message to overseas students.

Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University, London, said: "We have a short window to convince undecided applicants that they can plan with confidence to study in the UK this autumn. This needs action by government as well as universities.

"It is excellent news that the UK Government has confirmed the Graduate Route will be in place by summer 2021, and that visa application centres are starting to reopen. Universities are now sharing plans setting out how they will welcome students this autumn, combining face-to-face teaching where possible with online delivery to ensure students are safe. Yet changes to the visa system to keep pace with the changes to teaching are now urgent. This is important for students who might be reserving final judgments about whether to come to the UK or not in the autumn.

"The appointment of Professor Sir Steve Smith as International Education Champion is fantastic news for the sector and we believe he can play a key role in emphasising to government the need for action. His understanding of and relationships with overseas markets will be critically important in helping to develop these strong international relationships, which are more important now than ever.

"International students contribute so much to the UK campuses as well as the economy. Prospective students can be assured that the top priority for our universities is ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of all students and staff in the new academic year. Now assurances must be given that new ways of learning will not penalise them now or in the future."


1.     UUKi's document 'Kickstarting the recovery for international student recruitment: what do we need from government?' can be read in full here

2.     A list of UK universities along with their method of teaching for autumn 2020 can be found here

3.     Education is an export sector of growing importance to the UK with the higher education alone generating more than £13 billion of export revenue in 2016, an increase of 41% since 2010

4.     UK visa centres are now reopening in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia, and Fiji

5.     Universities UK is the collective voice of 137 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its mission is to create the conditions for UK universities to be the best in the world; maximising their positive impact locally, nationally and globally. Universities UK acts on behalf of universities, represented by their heads of institution. Visit:

6.     Universities UK International (UUKi) represents UK higher education institutions (HEIs) globally and helps them flourish internationally. To do this we actively promote UK HEIs abroad, provide trusted information for and about them, and create new opportunities through our unique ability to act at sector level. We draw on UK university expertise to influence policy in the UK and overseas, delivering information, advice and guidance to facilitate mutually beneficial collaboration between UK HEIs and a broad range of international partners. Visit:


Our team

Steven Jefferies

Steven Jefferies

Head of Media
Universities UK

Eloise Phillips

Eloise Phillips

Media Officer
Universities UK

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Clara Plackett

Senior Media Officer
Universities UK


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