Features | Where have all the International students gone?

With the number of international students studying at UK Universities decreasing in recent years, Joseph Birch investigates where all the international students have gone and why they’re staying away.


A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has revealed that numbers of International and EU students has declined by 4, 595 in only one year. Notably, student entries in the UK from Pakistan and India have halved since 2010, whilst having increased in other countries.

A number of reasons exist as to why numbers have tailed off so sharply since 2010. The hike in student fees put in place by the coalition government has simply priced international students from disadvantaged backgrounds out of the market. A number of proposed migration reforms have made it more difficult for students to access higher education in the UK. Also, since April 2012, students have also faced tougher visa regulations under the government’s Tier 4 scheme. Students can expect to face a series of interviews with examiners and prospective fellow students to assess integrity, a cross-examination of all documents alongside tougher examinations on English-speaking ability. At a time where our universities are facing a nation-wide funding crisis, the United Kingdom is creating an increasingly unwelcome environment with which to attract overseas students.

With the next general election under a year away, all parties are talking tough on contentious issues, with immigration taking the front line. Unsurprisingly, combined with the hike in the cost of student fees, this has created a stranglehold on the flow of international students coming to study in the UK. Theresa May’s comments on creating “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” will reflect badly on the United Kingdom, portraying an atmosphere of racism and xenophobia that, in an increasingly globalised society, has strangled the flow of valuable university funding in the form of international students.

Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has said that these students have been “caught up in the panic” regarding immigration hype on migrants creating a draining effect on the UK economic recovery, stating that overseas students were “economically valuable”.

Government rhetoric over immigration issues has grown increasingly tougher during the coalition’s tenure, covering tougher identity checks, a massive reduction target for migration numbers and a proposal to put in place NHS charges for migrants. The government has said that it is “not in principle opposed” to charges for foreign students, proposing that they take out private healthcare insurance instead. The United Kingdom is, in comparison to many places that foreign students arrive from, already an expensive place to study with the added cost of healthcare creating yet more expense.

In addition to this, upon arrival, international students face discrimination due to a new government proposal which will require landlords to undergo a through procedure of establishing each prospective tenant’s right to study in the UK. Student accommodation is massively in demand in all university cities with many applications for each room. This new method of background checking a student’s right to study in the UK through “a checklist of documents for their permission to be in the UK” will likely cause Landlords to discriminate against foreign migrants applying for tenancies due to the massive increase in paperwork that the new proposals would bring about.Alongside this, landlords will fear of unknowingly taking in an illegal immigrant and therefore having to pay the ‘civil liability’ cost which starts at £1,000, and increases sharply, dependent on the circumstances. In light of this, a recent survey carried out by Runnymede Trust showed that over a quarter of Black Carribean, Black African and Pakistani participants have already felt discriminated against when seeking tenancy in private accommodation.

Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive said ‘International students enrich our universities and colleges – and our society – academically, culturally, and through their contribution to the economy… Supporting high-quality international education is a crucial part of ensuring that the UK continues to engage with, and benefit from, the increasingly interconnected world’. The UK needs to seriously reconsider its approach to policing abuses of the immigration system without appearing menacing and off-putting to foreign students and investors alike.

EU commissioner Laszlo Andor has already warned that “The unilateral rhetoric is not really helpful, because it risks presenting the UK as a nasty country in the European Union’. If further unreasonable policies which risk creating a society that seemingly condones snooping, bureaucratic authoritarianism and a general atmosphere of xenophobia towards foreigners are allowed to develop further, the UK will create a reputation of being backward and unwelcoming to foreign students. This will further impact the UK’s international relations on a global basis, damaging both the economy and endangering a generation’s professional prospects due to the financial future of the UK’s universities being left hanging in balance.


Joseph Birch

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