UK universities facing 'calamitous' fall in international student applications

President of Universities UK criticises efforts to limit the number of students from abroad

The University of Oxford. A survey of 75 universities revealed an 88 per cent decrease in postgraduate applications from international students for the September 2024 intake. Getty Images
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Any effort by the government to further reduce the number of international students in the UK would be “calamitous”, a university leader said, amid a drop in the number of overseas applicants.

Prof Sally Mapstone, president of Universities UK (UUK), said efforts to limit the number of students from abroad were "unnecessary", warning the move could harm the economy, skills and jobs.

Her comments came after a survey of 75 universities, in which 88 per cent reported a decrease in postgraduate applications from international students for the September 2024 intake compared with a year ago – with an aggregate decrease of 27 per cent.

Despite the drop, there has been a surge in applicants from the UAE to British institutes even as European Union universities offer GCC students more relaxed visas.

Another 62 per cent of universities reported a reduction in undergraduate applications, with an aggregate decrease of 5 per cent.

The fall in applications followed the introduction of restrictions on students bringing family over to the UK, as well as higher salary thresholds for work visas.

Home Secretary James Cleverly also ordered a review in March into whether the graduate visa route – which enables international students to work in the UK for two to three years after completing their course – is “undermining the integrity and quality” of the higher education system.

A report from the review is due to be received by the government.

Prof Mapstone, who is also principal and vice chancellor of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, told Sky News that efforts to reduce the number of international students were a “very big issue” for the sector.

“International students are incredibly important to UK culture,” she said.

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“They contribute a huge amount to universities, to the economy, to skills and jobs, and we think it would be a tragedy, calamitous not just for institutions but actually for the UK as a whole, if the government took what would actually be quite unnecessary further action to restrict the number of international students coming into the UK.”

In a joint letter to the Home Secretary, university bodies, including Buila and the Russell Group, said further changes could undermine the success of the UK's higher education sector.

They also expressed concern that the current restrictions are having a detrimental effect on the UK's reputation as a leading study destination and said the provision of education to international students was one of the country's most successful export sectors.

Other signatories of the letter included Independent Higher Education, MillionPlus, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, University Alliance and Universities UK International.

Figures from the Home Office published last month found that the number of dependents accompanying students to the UK had fallen by about 80 per cent, with more than 26,000 fewer student visa applications made from January to March 2024 compared with the same period in 2023.

A government representative said: “We must strike the balance between acting decisively to tackle net migration and attracting the brightest students to study at our universities.

“In December, we announced an independent expert review of the graduate route to prevent any abuse and ensure it is working in our interests, attracting and retaining the best talent.

“We are providing significant financial support of nearly £6 billion per year to the higher education sector, plus more than £10 billion per year in tuition fee loans.”

Updated: May 15, 2024, 10:39 AM