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The Canary Doesn’t Look So Well: early warning signs on international student recruitment

  • 29 February 2024
  • By Robert MacIntosh
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Robert MacIntosh, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Business and Law at Northumbria University.

Miners would famously take a canary below ground with them as a form of early warning signal.  What would the equivalent indicator look like in higher education, where several commentators are concerned about the potential impact of recent changes to immigration policy in the UK? Various challenges, such as post-study work rights and the ability to bring dependents with you, sit alongside cost and academic reputation in the minds of applicants considering the benefits of studying in another country. The UK remains a popular destination for international students: they now contribute both huge cultural diversity and the small matter of £42bn to our economy. Will recent changes deter international students from studying here and, if so, what might the consequences be?

Whilst UK traditions dictate an academic year which starts in the autumn, many universities now offer postgraduate degrees with start dates in January for international students. Since one-in-three international students in the UK studies in a business school, these so-called January start programmes offer early insights into the impact of new immigration arrangements. The Chartered Association of Business Schools has surveyed 50 universities to review their outcome, and the results are striking.

We found that 75% of respondents experienced significantly or slightly lower enrolments of non-EU students in January 2024 compared to January 2023. These findings are even more troubling when you consider PWC’s 2024 report on financial sustainability in the higher education sector, which suggested a 20% decline in international student recruitment would see up to 80% of universities being in deficit in the academic year 2024/25.

The Chartered ABS survey shows recruitment to undergraduate programmes happens at lower volumes and has been reasonably resilient. But for postgraduate programmes, 60% of business schools reported that enrolments were significantly lower than last year. In PwC’s terms, this may mean a majority of UK universities find themselves in deficit within a year.

Business schools are, by some margin, the largest recruiters of international students in the sector. It seems clear that significant changes in international student recruitment are already beginning to take effect. Isolating a significant drop in student recruitment to a single cause isn’t straightforward. Other contributory factors such as the geopolitical dynamics of China’s relationship with the West and the health of the economy in key markets such as Nigeria are also having an impact. Two devaluations of the Nigerian naira have dramatically reduced applications from that market.

Notably, however, our survey respondents were business school deans, that is, a group of senior and experienced university leaders with a deep knowledge of international student recruitment. Their opinion is clear. Nine out of ten deans either agreed or agreed strongly with the statement that ‘recent government policy announcements, including the ban on visas for student dependents, are having a negative impact on my business school’s ability to recruit international students’. Further, they are deeply concerned with the impression, deliberate or otherwise, being created that the UK does not welcome international students. This sits in stark contrast to overt policy moves in other countries to make international student recruitment more attractive.

Informed voices are pressing for urgent change. Lord Bilimoria, a Fellow of the Chartered Association of Business Schools and a vocal advocate of international student recruitment, proposes taking international students out of the net migration category and treating this group as temporary migrants since they are here to study not to stay. Lord Johnson, whose former ministerial brief included responsibility for higher education, proposes to index domestic fees to inflation and to only include students who take up a post-study work opportunity in the net migration figures. However, this modest adjustment is unlikely to prove a vote winner in the short term and would not address the erosion that has taken place since 2017 when fees were last altered.

With an election on the horizon, the health of the UK university sector is somewhat lost in the noise. Healthcare, social care, housing, schooling and many more face their own financial crises and there is little public commentary on higher education. However, unlike the situation facing many other sectors, the government could stave off the worst of the funding crisis in higher education without further public monies being deployed if they have a stable and benign policy environment with secured access to the income generated by international students.

While the Office for Students is right to worry about the over-reliance of some universities on single international markets, the government’s immigration policies are denying all universities access to a key source of income, cultural diversity and long-term relationships with other economies. This will surely wreak havoc with one of the UK’s best export success stories.

We won’t know the full extent of the impact that changes to immigration policy on international student recruitment for some time. However, January start programmes in UK business schools may well be the sector’s equivalent of a canary. And the early signs are that the impact will be very significant for staff and students in all disciplines in the majority of UK universities.

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1 comment

  1. Philip Oliver says:

    An interesting article that raises the question for me – what are the arguments for imposing these changes – is it purely to reduce net immigration? – doesn’t make sense to me.

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