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Internationalisation: The HE general election issues, Day 4

  • 8 June 2024
  • By Josh Freeman
  • HEPI is running a seven-day blog series on important election-related issues, which is aimed primarily at non-specialist readers. This fourth piece, written by HEPI’s Policy Manager, outlines the debate on the internationalisation of UK higher education, particularly around international students.
  • The first piece, which looks at student voters, is here; the second piece, which focuses on funding, is here; and the third piece, which focuses on research spending, is here.
  • If you are not yet registered to vote at the forthcoming general election, you can still register here (until 11.59pm on Tuesday, 18 June 2024):
  • There is (just) time to register for the HEPI Annual Conference on ‘Higher education on the cusp of the general election’, sponsored by Kortext and TechnologyOne, which is taking place in central London on Thursday, 13 June 2024. There are a (very) small number of seats left.

Higher education has operated across borders right back to medieval times, when a university was a travelling community of scholars. Today, there is considerable interchange of students, staff and ideas between countries.

One way in which higher education crosses borders is through the international students who come from overseas to study in the UK. Around 380,000 non-EU nationals arrived in the UK on study-related visas in 2023. For the first time in recent years, the number arriving for study was lower than the approximately 420,000 arriving for work.

Source: Office for National Statistics, Long-term international migration, provisional: year ending December 2023, May 2023

Numerous pieces of research confirm that international students bring many benefits to the UK.

Financial benefits for institutions: As other sources of funding for higher education have fallen in value, institutions have come to depend more on the higher fees they can charge international students. In a recent report on the Graduate Route visa, the Migration Advisory Committee argued that, if international student numbers were to fall significantly:

universities across the nations of the UK will experience further substantial financial difficulty leading to job losses, course closures and a reduction in research, and in the extreme it is not inconceivable that some institutions would fail.

Rather than displacing domestic students, international students’ fee income supports other areas, making it possible for institutions to take more home students and conduct more research.

Soft power: International students who study in the UK often form favourable opinions of the country while they study here and then take those opinions with them when they leave. HEPI’s annual Soft Power Index shows around a quarter of world leaders have been educated in the UK, which comes second only to the United States.

Wider economic benefits: Research published by HEPI, Kaplan International Pathways and Universities UK and conducted by London Economics shows the net economic contribution of just one cohort of international students is around £37.4 billion, which is equal to around £560 per citizen and £58 million per constituency. Every part of the UK benefits.

Net economic contribution of international students by region

In recent months, international students have been the subject of much heated debate. In January 2024, the UK Government announced it would no longer allow students on taught master’s courses to bring dependants with them to the UK. This policy led to the number of dependants accompanying international students falling by nearly 80%. In two years, the number of student applications has fallen by more than a quarter, from 46,900 in the first three months of 2022 to 34,000 in the first three months of 2024. This is having a significant financial impact on many universities.

In March 2024, the Government announced it was commissioning a review from the Migration Advisory Committee into the Graduate Route visa. There were concerns that the Route was being abused by students. The review, published in May 2024, found no evidence of abuse and recommended the visa route remain in its current form but that other measures should be considered to protect the Route further. The Government accepted the recommendations, though the Graduate Route remains ‘under review’.

At the General Election, the direction of government policy towards international students remains in the balance. An incoming government would have several options to reduce the number of international students. However, any reduction is likely to have a detrimental effect on the financial health of universities and may have wider societal and economic implications for the UK.

Further reading

  • London Economics, The benefits and costs of international higher education students to the UK economy, HEPI / Kaplan International Pathways / Universities UK International, May 2023
  • Nick Hillman, HEPI’s 2023 Soft-Power Index, HEPI news release, August 2023

1 comment

  1. Richard Meredith says:

    Camilla Camish in describes the context well today. The context is largely ignored by this instrument of industry political lobby.

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