Times of plenty for British universities that have recruited older and more qualified students to the UK in recent years could soon be over as the government seeks to clamp down on families arriving for higher education.
With one in five visas given to dependents of foreign students last year, the UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman is proposing new restrictions on close relatives as part of her latest immigration reforms.
It comes as the UK is recording a boom in the number applying for sponsored study visas, with 485,758 granted last year — a record high. That is 81 per cent more than in 2019.
But with latest figures showing international students contribute around £30 billion annually to the UK economy, questions have been raised over Ms Braverman's judgment.
Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London, the world's leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, told The National: “The plan to limit dependents of foreign students will have a negative impact on international student enrolment.”
“It is worth noting that the financial viability of British Higher Education relies on expensive international fees and these fees are used to subsidise research and the education of British students.
“There are moral questions to be asked about a higher education sector which separates families from each other. This is not tenable if we aspire to be an equal and empathetic partner in the global community of nations.”
UK's net migration reached record high last year
Ms Braverman proposed a crackdown after coming under pressure when it was revealed net migration had reached a record 504,000 in the year to June.
Targeting international students has been one of her measures to reduce the figures but it has been met with fierce opposition from universities and even from those within her own party.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt fears it will inflict “major damage” on the UK economy, sources say.
Universities say a “blunt ban” will also inflict significant damage on the UK’s relationship with key partners such as India and Nigeria.
Will student curbs damage relations with India and Nigeria?
The most recent data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority shows that between academic years 2020 to 2021, and 2021 to 2022, there was an increase of 74,840 (or 12 per cent) in non-UK student enrolments, to 679,970.
This was largely driven by an increase in non-EU students from 452,225 to 559,825 (up 24 per cent).
There were 29 per cent more sponsored study visas granted in 2022 than in 2021.
In 2022, more than a fifth (22 per cent) of all sponsored study related visas granted were to dependants of students (135,788), compared to 6 per cent (16,047) in 2019.
The highest number of dependants (60,923) of sponsored study visa holders came from Nigeria, increasing from 1,586 in 2019.
Indian nationals had the second highest number of dependants, increasing from 3,135 to 38,990.
There were almost 120,000 dependant visas granted to the top five nationalities — Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — in 2022.
“Since 2019, both the total number of dependants and the proportion of all sponsored study related visas granted to dependants have increased,” the Office of National Statistics said.
“This may reflect a change in the composition of students, if for example, there are a greater number of older students attracted to study in the UK.
“When looking at the proportional change in visa grants to dependants, by nationality, Nigeria saw a large increase in the proportion of sponsored study related visas granted to dependants, from 19 per cent in 2019 to 51 per cent in 2022. Indian nationals also saw an increase in the proportion of dependants, from 8 per cent to 22 per cent.
“Outside of the top five nationalities, the increase in proportion was more modest (from 4 per cent to 6 per cent).”
Universities UK told The National it is “vital” Britain continues to attract international students.
“International students contribute massively to our universities both on and off campus,” it said.
“The high levels of interest in our universities from the international community highlights the world-leading status of our institutions, and it is vital that the UK remains an open and welcoming destination for international students, and that their contribution is recognised and valued.”
The move to put curbs on foreign students is a reversal of the work by the government’s International Education Champion Professor Sir Steve Smith who has been working with nations to increase the numbers of international students.
The government’s own 2019 International Education Strategy pledged to increase education exports to £35 billion per year and be attracting 600,000 foreign students by 2030.
“We recognise that growth in the number of dependents has raised some questions,” Universities UK told The National.
“We would emphasise that this increase in part reflects the government’s focus on certain priority countries within the International Education strategy, and the relative growth in the number of international students studying at postgraduate levels.
“The vast majority of students are not accompanied by any dependents, while the minority that are must pay the NHS surcharge up front and demonstrate they have the necessary funds to support themselves and their families.”
The students applying for visas for their dependents must pay their application fee and the Immigration Health Surcharge up front and also prove that they have £845 a month for courses in London or £680 a month for courses outside London for each of their family members.
“These costs, on top of the University fees international students must pay to study here, mean that an applicant would need to have significant financial reserves in order to make the student route a viable option for relocating to the UK with ‘five or six’ dependants,” Immigration firm Smith Stone Walters said.
Professor Ian Walmsley, Provost of Imperial College London, said international students are “irreplaceable”.
“The UK government estimates we need at least an additional 150,000 researchers and technicians by 2030 to reach our science goals,” he told The National.
“We have no chance of achieving this unless we can support the education of UK Stem students and attract the best and brightest international students.
“Our international students make an irreplaceable contribution to the UK economy — worth around £29 billion a year — which we cannot afford to lose.
“International students are also entrepreneurial and start companies here that create jobs, fuel innovation and benefit society.
“We must signal, now more than ever, that the UK is open to international talent. It is in the interests of everyone in the UK to do so.”
A recent poll, commissioned from Public First by Universities UK, revealed that the UK public are not in favour of cutting the number of international students.
It showed the public strongly supported the contribution international students make to the UK.
The majority (62 per cent) recognised that international students gave more to the economy than they took out, and 43 per cent thought that British diplomacy benefits from hosting international students, who leave with positive impressions of the UK after studying here.
Only 32 per cent of the public believed that international students should be classed as immigrants in official figures, the poll revealed.
“The public understands the enormous contribution that international students make to our economy, institutions and research outputs, as well as enormously benefiting the UK’s international reputation,” said Vivienne Stern, Chief Executive of UUK.
“Our international institutions are cherished by the public, and we would hope that government policy follows suit.”
Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, has reportedly also pushed back on Ms Braverman’s plans.
UK warned 'blunt bans' on students will affect its reputation
Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, says the way forward is not to “reverse” course.
“Our universities know that recruitment must be sustainable but a repeating pattern of boom and bust in international recruitment would be a big mistake,” he said.
“We need stable and well managed policy which keeps the UK attractive while ensuring that we continue to demonstrate exceptionally high levels of compliance with all visa and immigration requirements.
“The ability to bring dependents is already restricted to postgraduate courses, and students must demonstrate that they have the financial resources to support themselves and their families. We urge government to work with the sector to address and mitigate any concerns at local or national level in a balanced, constructive manner — rather than considering blunt bans that have the potential to adversely affect the UK’s reputation, our economy, and our relationships with key partners such as India and Nigeria.
“We strongly urge the government not to reverse course.”