Universities UK – Removal of Students From Migration Targets

Below follows a briefing document for the Commons’ Backbench debate on Student Visas from Universities UK.


  • International students bring a range of benefits to universities and national and local economies.
  • Universities UK has called on government to remove international university students from their target to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by the next election.
  • We want government to commit to supporting growth in higher education exports, a sector which is expanding internationally and in which the UK excels.

A sector in which the UK excels

The UK is the second most popular destination for international study. According to calculations by London Economics and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, higher education exports (EU and non-EU) contributed £8 billion to the UK economy in 2009. The same report estimated that higher education exports could be worth £16.9 billion to the UK by 2025.

Higher education exports has been identified as a key sector in the government’s industrial strategy. Rapid growth in the number of students studying abroad presents a real opportunity for the UK. In 2010, there were 4.1 million tertiary-level students across the world studying outside their country of citizenship. By 2020, estimates suggest the number will reach 7 million.

Responding to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report on Overseas Students and Net Migration the government said it was ‘committed to the growth of a sector in which the UK excels’.

Latest figures for international enrolments

The latest figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that the number of first-year non-EU students at universities decreased by 0.4% in 2011–12. This is largely the result of a decrease amongst postgraduates. Non-EU entrants to postgraduate taught degrees fell by 2.6% between 2010 and 2011–12. UUK’s own intelligence suggests that this decline continued in 2012.

HESA figures give a more reliable picture of what is happening to UK international student numbers than either UCAS data or visa application figures, because they relate to enrolments rather than applications.


The above figures relate to new entrants. The overall number of non-EU students enrolled on courses in universities is up by 1.5% from 2010–2011 to 2011–12. However, this is driven by increases in the number of new entrants in previous years, many of whom are enrolled on courses lasting more than one year.

The total number of non-EU students enrolled on postgraduate courses has dropped for the first time in ten years, before which records are not directly comparable. Non-EU students support the provision of many key subjects, especially in science, technology and engineering (see below), so this decline is worrying.


Recent figures released by the Home Office show that Tier 4 (student) visa applications are substantially down. The majority of the decrease is accounted for by a fall in the number of visa applications for study at further education institutions and private colleges. Visa applications for study at higher education institutions are up by 4.7% in the year to March 2013. However:

  • they are still lower than their peak in 2011, and have fluctuated significantly over the past two years
  • these are applications rather than enrolments
  • in the context of a rapidly growing and highly competitive international market, the low overall growth over recent years is likely to equate to a loss of market share


International competition

There is some evidence to suggest that the UK is becoming less attractive as a destination of study. A recent survey (see below) showed a steady fall in the percentage of overseas education agents saying the UK is a ‘very attractive’ study destination, down from 71% in 2008 to 64% in 2012.


The UK’s competitors, such as Canada and Australia, are making concerted efforts to increase their share of the international market. A report for the Canadian government recommended doubling the number of international students by 2022, and the Australian government commissioned a strategic review of their student visa system (the Knight Review), following which restrictions were lifted and a more generous post-study work option was introduced. Our European and Asian competitors also have strategies in place to take advantage of this lucrative market.


Net migration

Changes to visa policy to date have produced a reduction in net migration. However, further considerable reductions will be necessary to meet the government target of reducing net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015.

In order to meet that target the government will need to continue to bear down on immigration. Students are the largest category of migrant (despite the fact that the majority leave on completion of their studies). The Migration Advisory Committee has calculated that a reduction in non-EU student numbers of 87,600 over three years (2012–2015) would be required to meet the government’s net migration target.

Students are generally temporary visitors to the UK

A 2013 Home Office study, The Migrant Journey, showed that 18% of individuals who entered as students in 2006 remained in the UK five years later. Of those still in the UK:

  • five per cent were still studying
  • nine per cent of the original cohort had switched into a work-based immigration category
  • only one per cent had settled permanently by 2011

Recent changes to the student visa system since 2011 are likely to reduce the number staying for longer than five years even further.

Benefits of international students

International students contribute significantly to the UK academic community, to campuses, to the economies of the towns and cities in which they are studying and to the UK as a whole. Benefits of international students include:

  • short- and long-term economic benefits
  • benefits to the academic community, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects
  • increased UK ‘soft power’

Economic benefits

According to calculations by London Economics and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, higher education exports (EU and non-EU) contributed £8 billion to the UK economy in 2009. The same report estimated that higher education exports could be worth £16.9 billion to the UK by 2025.

Education exports have been identified as a key priority for the government in its industrial strategy, with its strategy for the education industry due to be published this year.

A report for the University of Sheffield showed that international students make a net contribution to Sheffield’s GDP of £120.3 million.

A similar report for the University of Exeter estimated that GDP generated by international students at the university directly supported 2,480 jobs in the city.

Home students benefit from the presence of international students in classrooms and on campuses. UK graduates will be working in a business environment and labour market that is increasingly internationalised. Living and learning alongside peers from across the world helps to prepare them for this.

Science, technology, engineering and maths

Overseas students disproportionately study towards postgraduate qualifications and in STEM subjects. However, non-EU new entrants in STEM subjects fell by 8% in 2011–12.

While overall 12% of students enrolled in 2011–12 came from outside the EU, this rises to 49% for postgraduate taught (PGT) courses in engineering, mathematics and computer science and 31% in PGT courses in technologies. In the same year, 27% of PGR STEM students were non-EU students.

Overseas students therefore contribute enormously to the academic STEM community in the UK. Sir Andre Geim, the Russian-born Nobel Prize-winner from the University of Manchester, said the identification of graphene would ‘probably not have happened if I had been unable to employ great non-EU PhD and post-doctoral students’.

The large proportion of overseas students in these subject areas means that the viability of many of these courses depends upon overseas students. Similarly, growth in the number of overseas students will mean that courses focusing on emerging areas of study in the STEM subjects will be viable, or become viable more quickly.

A thriving postgraduate STEM sector, supported by overseas students, is vital for ensuring that the UK remains at the forefront of international research.

Soft power’

The UK’s education system, and in particular its higher education system, is a major source of our ‘soft power’ and influence in the world. This influence helps to secure economic and foreign policy objectives for the UK.

A report from the Home Affairs Select Committee published in March 2011 suggested that at that time there were 27 foreign heads of state who were educated in the UK. Giving evidence as part of the inquiry leading to that report, Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne MP said that the international reputation of the UK’s universities, as well as delivering economic benefits:

…has a longer-lasting reputational benefit, because there are extraordinarily large numbers of people right around the world in positions of influence in politics, business and elsewhere, who have studied at British institutions.


Universities UK has called on the government to:

  • set a clear target for growth in international university students
  • support this with a strategy to remove barriers to study in the UK, including by reviewing current visa arrangements
  • address the tension between aspirations for ‘growth in a market in which the UK excels’ and the commitment to reduce net migration by excluding students from the net migration target

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