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Last updated on Thursday 18 Jan 2024 at 3:59pm
Here, we take a look at some of the common myths around international students and graduates and analyse how they compare to reality.
Net migration to the UK is currently at record levels. This has been due to a range of factors including the pandemic, a significant increase in people coming to the UK on humanitarian routes (including from Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong), as well as an increase in non-EU students and workers.
Given net migration is a measure of population flows – i.e. the difference between the number of people coming to the UK (immigration) and the number of people leaving the UK (emigration) for 12 months or more – it is inevitable that an increase in the number of international students coming to the UK will have an impact on net migration in the short-term. When looking at the long-term, however, international students and the Graduate visa are not expected to have a significant impact on net migration figures.
Data from the ONS shows that the vast majority (80 per cent) of international students leave within five years of arrival and, while the numbers of international students remaining in the UK is increasing, net migration is still expected to decrease as the number of students emigrating increases (either immediately after their studies, or following some time on the Graduate visa or another work visa). According to some of the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (as well as the Office of Budget Responsibility), net migration is expected to fall to around 245,000 per year in 2030.
The Graduate visa was introduced to support the government’s International Education Strategy. It was intended to help increase and diversify the number of international students studying in the UK – it was never solely about attracting only the ‘brightest and best’, or students from wealthy countries, or those looking to attend certain universities.
The government’s strategy has an explicit focus on expanding our appeal to a wider range of students and giving them the opportunity to develop by studying here temporarily. The strategy also sought to build partnerships with some of the countries where we have seen the strongest growth, such as India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Nigeria. The decision to identify these ‘priority countries’ within the strategy was, in part, motivated by previous concerns over the need to diversify international student recruitment – particularly given heightened geopolitical risks. Rather than an accident, or by-product of the Graduate visa, the International Education Strategy has led to an increase in demand from precisely those countries and regions it set out to focus on.
Charles is an exceptional international student from Nigeria who has enriched the campus of Anglia Ruskin University and the local community around it. Drawn by the 'prestigious' UK educational offering, he soon threw himself in to opportunities on offer, culminating with an award to celebrate his high number of volunteering hours. Get to know Charles, his interests and motivations, and most of all his immense contribution to the UK in this video.
Khrystyna had always wanted to study in the UK and had been saving up for over a year ready to make the move. However, when the conflict in her home country of Ukraine began and forced her and her family to look for a safe new home, Khrystyna had to move this decision forward. Khrystyna decided on the University of Glasgow, where she studies LLB Common Law, and hasn't looked back since. She was made to feel welcome from day one and is now focussed firmly on gaining her legal qualifications to support those in her home country post-war. Find more about Khrystyna and her family's resilience in the fact of conflict and their inspiring story in this video.
Dhionis is a Medical Sciences student at the University of Leeds. Originally a nurse in his home country of Albania, he decided he wanted to learn more about medical care, and moved to the UK to study - attracted by world class education facilities and a diverse and inclusive culture. Dhionis struggled with the weather and food, but soon found a bigger challenge that he rose to with esteem - supporting his community in Leeds through the Covid-19 pandemic, working on the frontlines in his local hospital. ' Dhionis's story is inspiring and shows the dedicated and impact amazing international students like him can make to their local communities; even in the most testing of circumstances.
The Graduate visa brings the UK’s offer to international students in line with our overseas competitors. The visa was deliberately designed with flexibility in mind, with the government advertising it to international students as “an unsponsored route, meaning you do not need a job offer to apply for the route” and allowing the opportunity “to work flexibly, switch jobs and develop your career in the UK as required.”
International students, and those who chose to remain in the UK on the Graduate visa, do not have access to public funds and must pay £470 each year for access to the NHS – a figure which will shortly be increasing to £776 per year.
The Graduate visa cannot be extended, meaning that anyone wanting to remain in the UK would need to switch into another visa and meet the various skill and salary requirements. There would be little point in duplicating the salary and skill requirements which already exist for the Skilled Worker visa for the Graduate visa, especially at a time when the UK labour market is so tight, as to do so would make it harder for businesses to recruit recent international graduates.
A 2022 research report by IFF Research on behalf of the Home Office looked to address this data gap, but due to a limited sample size of only 50 Graduate route visa holders it cannot provide us with concrete findings on statistical trends in the overall population. However, of this small sample size, 74% were employed, 24% were looking for work, and 2% were self-employed, and of those surveyed the majority (66%) were employed in professional, associated professional, and technical occupations. The median salary for those in employment was £20K to £30k.
In addition, research by AGCAS in their 2023 report International Graduate Routes: Narratives from the UK job market, conducted among 345 international graduates found that 72% of graduate visa holders were in graduate level employment. Findings showed that graduates were employed across a range of organisation type (multinationals, SMEs, charities and public sector organisations) and across a wide range of sectors (business, IT, engineering, and education being the most widely represented).
International students are increasingly price sensitive. When looking to study abroad, many are keen to ensure the investment they are making in their education and their future will pay off, which means that visa and immigration policy – particularly related to post-study work opportunities – is a key part of the decision-making process.
Given wages are typically higher in the UK than in other parts of the world, it is perfectly legitimate for some international graduates to use their earnings to support family members or to help repay loans they took out to study in the UK.
Prior to May 2023, the government allowed international students to switch visa category prior to completing their studies, which led to an increase in the number of students switching from a study to work visa category upon arrival. UK universities lobbied for this loophole to be closed and we are pleased the government has now responded by ending the ability for people to switch visas before graduating. The Graduate visa is only available to students who have successfully completed their course and so anyone who dropped out prior to graduating would not be eligible.
While recent reports have suggested that up to 25 per cent of students from India and Bangladesh are dropping out, this data refers to the pandemic years when many international students were prevented from travelling to the UK due to disruption. International students who enrolled during this period would have likely started their courses remotely from their home country, meaning that their decisions to drop out (potentially before even travelling to the UK) may have been influenced by a desire to postpone their studies until travel restrictions eased and in-person teaching resumed.
When looking at data provided by the OfS, between 2014/15 to 2017/18 continuation and completion rates between international students are broadly similar. For non-UK students, continuation rates across all OfS registered providers were 90.3% (compared to 90.5% for UK students) and completion rates were notably higher at 91.4% for non-UK students (compared to 88.5% for UK students).
The Graduate visa is a temporary visa and cannot be extended. That means international graduates can only remain in the UK on this visa for 2-3 years, depending on the qualification they hold. If they do want to remain in the UK for the longer term and settle, they would need to apply and switch into another visa and meet the various skills and salary requirements associated with that visa.
International students make a significant financial contribution to the higher education sector. The value of domestic tuition fees has been steadily eroded by inflation over recent years and, given university research is funded significantly below full economic costs, universities now lose £1 billion each year on teaching domestic students and £5 billion on undertaking research.
Analysis of university financial forecasts from PWC (commissioned by UUK) shows that universities are extremely vulnerable to lower than anticipated demand from international students, and even a fall in the rate of growth for international student numbers could have a significant impact on university finances. Should anticipated growth be 20 percentage points below university forecasts in 2024-25, around 80% of institutions in England and Northern Ireland would be in deficit in 2025-26.
There are very strict monitoring protocols universities must follow when they issue a visa to an international student, and any international student not engaging with their course would need to be reported by their university to the Home Office. This is all set out in the UKVI Student Sponsor Guidance.
For example, if a student does not enrol by the course enrolment deadline, the Home Office is notified so that their visa is curtailed, and they are required to leave the UK. For those who have enrolled, the Home Office have an Academic Engagement Policy which sets out the expectations universities need to follow to ensure students are engaging with their studies. There is a detailed protocol for monitoring engagement and reporting, including examples of contact points for in-person engagement.
While the recent increase in international student recruitment to the UK has helped re-establish the UK’s position as the second most popular study destination in the world for international students, the pace of growth has not been without its challenges – particularly related to accommodation and other local services. This has been especially true where international students have sought to bring over family members.
Although the shortage of school places or housing in some areas of the country has not been directly caused by international student recruitment, universities recognise the need to ensure their recruitment strategies are closely aligned to and developed in collaboration with local stakeholders and partners. We have published good practice guidance to help universities ensure recruitment and accommodation planning is sustainable.
Following a greater than anticipated rise in the number of dependants, as of January 2024 the government has limited the ability for most international students to bring dependants.
The economic contribution to international students is significant. Each cohort of international students generates £41.9 billion to the UK economy and, on average, each of the 650 parliamentary constituencies in the UK is £58m (per constituency) better off because of international students – equivalent to approximately £560 per citizen.
International students, or those on the Graduate visa, do not have access to public funds, and each year international students pay £470 for access to the NHS – a figure which will shortly be increasing to £776 per year. International students and graduates must pay this, even if they never end up using the NHS. Alongside this, international students and graduates also work on placements and in the NHS as nurses, doctors and dentists.
Previous research suggests that a single cohort of international students who stay in the UK to work pay £3.2 billion in tax – a figure which is likely a significant underestimate due to recent increases in international students in the UK, as well as increases in thresholds for income tax and increases to National Insurance.
Universities facilitate applications directly from students, or via education agents, and it is for students to choose how they apply. Spending on agents has increased in the main due to the overall growth in students coming to study in the UK, as well as an increase in the proportion of students applying via agents.
Education agents play an important part in the student recruitment process and there are many layers to the application journey where agents can provide support, including preparing for English language tests and academic preparatory courses, making the application to study and the visa application, finding accommodation and booking travel easier for the prospective student.
It has been estimated that around half of international students have had the support of an agent in their journey to study overseas, and there is evidence that shows that students who have been supported by an agent are better prepared and are more likely to successfully enrol. That is why, together with others across the sector, UUK has launched a UK Agent Quality Framework to ensure that universities have comprehensive guidance to better understand the responsibilities of international recruitment and working with agents. This work has been endorsed by the Home Office’s UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI).
Our monthly updates are a great way for you to stay up to date with our work, events, and higher education news.