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Overseas student numbers

In 2021/22 there were 679,970 overseas students studying at UK universities, 120,140 of whom were from the EU and 559,825 from elsewhere. This was another new record total and 24% of the total student population.

In 2017/18, the number of new overseas entrants to UK universities was just around 254,000, increases in the last four years saw overseas entrants numbers reach a new high of 381,700 in 2020/21.

The top sending countries for overseas students have changed over the last few years.

  • China currently sends the most students to the UK, just over 97,000 entrants in 2020/21; this number has risen by 87% since 2011/12 despite a fall in 2020/21.
  • Entrants from India and Nigeria has increased rapidly in recent years. Number from India increased from 17,800 in 2018/19 to 87,000 in 2021/22 and those from Nigeria from 5,500 to 32,900 over the same period.
  • Since 2016/17 there has been a fall in entrants from EU countries which had traditionally sent large number of students to the UK. Number from Romania are down by 70%, Poland 66%, Greece 66%, Cyprus 58%, Germany 52% and Italy 51%.

In recent years, the UK has been the second most popular global destination for international students after the US. In 2019, it was overtaken by Australia and fell to third. Other English-speaking countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, are also seeing substantial increases in overseas students, as are European countries which are increasingly offering courses in English.

Government policy on international students

International Education Strategy

The UK Government’s International Education Strategy sets out actions to meet ambitions to:

  • increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030
  • increase the total number of international students choosing to study in the UK higher education system (in universities, further education colleges and alternative providers) each year to 600,000 by 2030

The latter ambition was met for the first time in 2020/21, with 605,130 international higher education students studying in the UK.

Brexit

There was a sharp decline (40%) in applications for undergraduate study in the UK from EU countries in 2021/22. The number of EU accepted applicants fell by 50% following changes to visa requirements and student finance for these students. EU Applications for 2022/23 fell by a further 24% and acceptance by 29% to their lowest level since the higher education sector was reorganised in 1994.

New students arriving from the EU to start courses from August 2021 are generally no longer eligible for home student status, which means they must pay international fees and will not qualify for tuition fee loans. Students who started courses on or before 31 July 2021 remain eligible for support for the duration of their course.

In September 2021, the Turing Scheme replaced the Erasmus+ programme in providing funding for participants in UK universities to go on international study and work placements. The decision not to fund students coming to the UK as part of the Turing Scheme has prompted concern there will be a decrease in international students and the benefits they bring to the UK.

Visa and immigration policy

In October 2020, a new ‘student route’ for international students applying for visas to study in the UK opened, replacing the previous Tier 4 (General) student visa. How long students can stay depends on the length of their course and their previous studies in the UK. Degree-level students can usually stay for up to five years.

In July 2021, a new post-study work visa for international students, the ‘Graduate route’, opened. The graduate visa gives international graduates permission to stay in the UK for two years after successfully completing a course in the UK. For graduates who completed a PhD or other doctoral qualification, the visa lasts for three years.

It has been suggested there is a tension between successive recent governments’ ambitions to increase international student numbers and reduce net migration.

In summer 2023, the Government announced new restrictions on student visa conditions which it said would “substantially” reduce migration. Changes include restricting the entitlement to bring dependants to a more limited group of international students (almost exclusively research students) and removing the possibility of switching into a work visa before completing studies. The announcement reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the International Education Strategy but said this should not be at the expense of commitments to lower and more beneficial migration overall.

Funding

Research income from the EU was worth £846 million to UK universities in 2021/22, or 12% of total research income. It included grants and contracts from EU Government bodies, charities, and the private sector. Research income from non-EU overseas sources was £648 million, or 9% of all research income in the same year.

Reductions to teaching grants, the freezing of tuition fee caps, and cost of living pressures have meant many higher education providers have looked to the tuition fees of international students to cover shortfalls elsewhere in budgets. International fees are not capped in the same way as the fees of ‘home’ students, and so providers can charge significantly more.

However, there are growing concerns about the reliance of some UK universities on international tuition fee income, particularly from Chinese students. In June 2022, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee warned higher education providers are potentially exposing themselves to significant financial risks should assumptions about future growth in international student numbers prove over-optimistic.

The costs and benefits of international students to the UK

In May 2023, analysis by London Economics estimated first-year international students enrolled in the 2021/22 academic year would bring total net economic benefits to the UK £37.4 billion. Estimated total economic benefits were approximately £41.9 billion, while estimated total costs were £4.4 billion, suggesting a benefit-to-cost ratio of 9.4:1.

The analysis said the economic impact was spread across the entire UK, with international students making a £58 million net economic contribution to the UK economy per parliamentary constituency across the duration of their studies. This is equivalent to £560 per UK resident.

Alongside these economic benefits, surveys have shown international students benefit the UK higher education experience by bringing an outward-looking culture to campuses and preparing students for working in a global environment. In 2023, over one-quarter of the world’s countries (58) are headed by someone educated in the UK, which is second only to the USA (65).


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