International students and the Brexit risk

27 Jan

By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services

students-youngpeopleThe UK has, for many years, welcomed international students, who have come from many countries around the world to study in UK schools, colleges and universities. Up to half a million such students are recruited each year, with another 600,000 enrolling for an English language course.

However, the Government’s treatment of international students over recent years has caused numbers to fall significantly, and some of the options for Brexit threaten to add to this year-on-year decline, potentially resulting in considerable damage to the UK economy and posing major challenges for education institutions (whether schools, colleges or universities).

The most recent figures issued by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that, of the 2.3 million students enrolled on a course of higher education:

  • approximately 125,000 come from European Union (EU) countries (with Germany, France, the Republic of Ireland, Italy, Greece and Cyprus featuring prominently); and
  • 312,000 come from other countries (with China, India, Nigeria, Malaysia, the USA and Hong Kong sending the highest numbers of students).

The steady growth, historically, in enrolments of students from non-EU countries has now begun to slow down – from 130,000 new students in 2015 to 113,000 in 2016 (a drop of 13 per cent) – whilst numbers of EU students continue to plummet – from 47,000 new students in 2015 to 34,000 in 2016 (a drop of 28 per cent).

This is contrary to trends in other countries, with Canada seeing an annual growth in international students of 11 per cent, ten per cent for the USA, eight per cent for Australia, and seven per cent for Germany. According to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the number of students looking to study outside their home countries is increasing at a rate of six per cent each year.

Australia has recently launched a new initiative for recruiting international students. The aim is to increase enrolments by 720,000 over the next ten years, even though Australia has very strict controls on immigration.

Regulations, visas and Brexit

So, why are the UK’s trends not keeping pace? One reason is the tightening of regulations for licensing UK universities to accept international students. This has made many institutions act with greater caution in recruiting such students, especially as some have had their licences to enrol international students withdrawn.

Another reason is the introduction of stricter controls over the issuing of visas. Many potential students are being subjected to ‘credibility’ interviews as part of the visa application process, and there have been reports of applicants being refused student visas for various spurious reasons, such as not knowing the name of a university’s vice chancellor or its library opening times.

The current situation could be exacerbated, as Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced recently that there would be a further crackdown on the number of international students, and even tougher visa rules would be introduced for ‘lower quality’ universities and courses.

Brexit could pose further risks. In a recent submission to the Education Select Committee, Cambridge University warned that Brexit poses a significant risk to higher education and that regulatory and visa changes could have a sudden and damaging impact, resulting in some universities being pushed over a precipice.

Some research consultants have calculated that the decline in international student numbers over the past five years has cost the UK economy £8 billion.

Global influence

If the global influence of UK higher education is to be maintained and increased, universities need to be able to continue to reach out to international students and welcome the academic, cultural and economic contributions that they are able to make.

Article written for January  2017 Your Voice. 

Do let us know your views…

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