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International Student Migration to the UK

21 Mar 2020

This briefing examines international students in the UK. It presents evidence on their numbers, characteristics, economic impact, what they do after their studies, and how many settle in the UK.

  1. Key Points
    • International students make up a fifth of all students in UK higher education, and their annual inflow grew by nearly 20% from 2009/10 to 2018/19
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    • Three-quarters of international students starting in UK higher education in 2018/19 came from non-EU countries, with one-third coming from China
      More…
    • From 2007 to 2017, the UK lost global market share in international students to Australia, Canada, and China
      More…
    • Work visa grants to non-EU former students fell by 84% from 2011 to 2018, before the decision to re-introduce post-study work from 2020/21
      More…
    • Most non-EU students leave the UK after their studies
      More…
    • Students who settle in the UK are usually on a ten-year route to settlement
      More…
    • Research has consistently found that international students have positive economic impacts in the UK
      More…
    • Tuition fee income from non-EU students has grown in recent years, making up 14% of UK universities’ total income in 2017/18
      More…
  1. Understanding the Policy

    Under free movement, which is set to continue until the end of the Brexit transition period, citizens of EU countries can move freely to the UK to study. They pay the same tuition fees as home students, and are entitled to the same subsidised tuition fee loans. By contrast, all non-EU citizens require a visa to come to the UK to study for more than six months (and some require visas to study for less than six months), and they are generally subject to higher tuition fees, without entitlement to taxpayer-subsidised loans. In this briefing, the term “EU” should be understood to include the three additional EEA countries – Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Norway – and Switzerland, none of which are subject to immigration control. ... Click to read more.

    Within the current ‘points-based system’ (PBS), one tier, Tier 4, implemented in March 2009, provides a route for non-EU nationals to study with an approved education provider, so long as they meet minimum English language requirements.

    Tier-4 students may generally remain in the UK for up to four months after their course has ended and can work during this period. PhD students can apply for the Doctorate Extension Scheme, allowing them a year of work. After their course, students may be able to extend their visa to remain in the UK for further study or switch to a work-related visa.

    In recent years, there have been several changes to international student policy. In 2008, the Tier-1 post-study work route was implemented, which allowed students to look for work for two years after graduating. This route was closed to new applicants in 2012 and students’ permission to work was restricted. However, it is still easier for international students to get a Tier 2 work visa, as their employers do not have to pay them at the ‘experienced worker’ rate, but rather a lower salary for ‘new entrants.’ Employers also do not need to advertise the job to the resident labour market (the ‘Resident Labour Market Test’, planned to be abolished under the UK’s post-Brexit points-based immigration system).

    In September 2019, the Conservative government, under Boris Johnson, announced the return of a more liberal policy for students wishing to stay in the UK after graduating: a post-study work visa, to be available to students beginning in the academic year 2020/21. Successful applicants on this route will be able to stay and look for work in the UK for up to two years, with graduates able to switch into skilled work visas once they have found a suitable job.

    In 2015, the cap on the number of UK and EU-domiciled students that universities in England could accept was abolished.

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    Around 750,000 people come to the UK to study each year, though most stay for only a few weeks to study English (Migration Advisory Committee, 2018, p.4). This briefing is concerned with longer-term international student migration, with a focus on higher-education and further education, rather than students in other educational institutions such as vocational colleges or English language schools. Higher education institutions are recognised bodies with the power to award degrees, and include all UK universities as well as some higher education colleges. ... Click to read more.

    In this briefing, most data on international students in UK higher education come from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). HESA categorises students by ‘domicile’: a person’s place of permanent residence before they started their course. This means that some non-UK nationals will be classified as UK-domiciled students. Data are generally restricted to students in their first year of a course, to give an indication of annual inflow. These data do not cover further education colleges, on which there are relatively limited data.

    Analysis of the UK’s global market share of students is based on data from UNESCO. These data concern ‘tertiary students’, which comprises students at ISCED levels 5 (short-cycle tertiary education), 6 (Bachelor’s or equivalent level), 7 (master’s or equivalent level), and 8 (doctoral or equivalent level) (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2012).

    Home Office records of visa extensions provide the best information on international students who remain in the UK. However, these data do not cover EU students, who require no visa.

    Information on the settlement of students comes from Home Office data on the visa status of non-EU migrants over time, known as ‘Migrant Journey’ data (Home Office, 2019a). These data provide the immigration status of an annual cohort of new entrants at the end of each calendar year after their arrival, and are used to calculate the share of those entering the UK on a student visa in a given year who have settlement or citizenship, or remain in the UK on another visa, five years later. Note that the data show only whether the person is still authorised to live in the UK, and not whether they are actually still here, as some will leave before their visa expires.

    Data on foreign-born UK residents’ main reason for moving to the UK come from the Labour Force Survey, the largest official household survey in the UK. Only one ‘main’ reason for migration is recorded, though in practice people may have more than one reason for moving. The data reflect self-reported reasons and will not necessarily match people’s legal immigration status.

International students make up a fifth of all students in UK higher education, and their annual inflow grew by nearly 20% from 2009/10 to 2018/19

Study is a major reason for moving to the UK (see the Migration Observatory briefings, Migrants in the UK: An Overview and Immigration by Category: Workers, Students, Family Members, Asylum Applicants). In the academic year 2018/19, around 486,000 international students, both EU and non-EU, were studying in UK higher education institutions, the largest number on record (Figure 1), making up a fifth of all students.

Looking at the numbers of first-year EU and non-EU students, which indicates total annual student inflows, we see an increase of almost a fifth (18%) from 2009/10 to 2018/19 (Figure 1).

Figure 1

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Three-quarters of international students starting in UK higher education in 2018/19 came from non-EU countries, with one-third coming from China

A large majority of international students starting in higher education come from outside the EU – 76% in the academic year 2018/19 (Figure 2). This is despite non-EU domiciled students paying higher tuition fee rates, while under free movement EU students pay the same as UK students, and unlike non-EU students are entitled to the same subsidised tuition fee loans.

UK universities have become increasingly reliant on students from a single country, China, whose numbers have more than tripled from 2006/07 to 2018/19, and now make up 32% of all new first-year students (Table 1). This is a trend also seen in other countries, in part because China’s large population and growing wealth make it a major source country for international students globally. In the US, Chinese students accounted for 34% of all international students in the academic year 2018/19 (IIE, 2020). In Australia, the figure was 37% (Department of Education, Skills and Employment, 2020).

Meanwhile, Indian student numbers fell from 2011/12, due in part to the abolition of the post-study work visa, but showed signs of recovery from 2016/17 to 2018/19. These figures do not include those studying at further education colleges, where the decline in Indian students following policy changes in the early years of the 2010-2015 coalition government was particularly sharp. In 2011, there were around 34,000 confirmations of acceptance for studies (CASs) issued to Indian nationals for study in tertiary, further education, or other non-HE institutions, compared with around 1,000 in 2018 (Home Office, 2019d).

Figure 2

Table 1

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From 2007 to 2017, the UK lost global market share in international students to Australia, Canada, and China

Although the UK has more than doubled its intake of international students over the past 20 years, from 2007 to 2017 its global market share fell from 11% to 8% (Figure 3).

Figure 3

The UK and the United States, traditionally also a popular choice for international students, both lost market share during this period, primarily to Australia, Canada, and China (Figure 4).

Figure 4

The higher education sector has raised concerns that the UK’s decline in market share of international students has resulted from changes in policy, such as restrictions of post-study work options (e.g., see evidence cited in Migration Advisory Committee, 2018, p. 37–45). Research suggests that the UK’s immigration system does indeed have some influence over student choices to study here, along with a range of other factors, such as the exchange rate, overseas economic growth, and policies in competitor countries (Prazeres and Findlay, 2017; Conlon et al., 2018; QS, 2019).

The fall in the UK’s global market share of international students reflects its loss of students from the US, Europe, and especially India (Figure 5).

Figure 5

The post-2011 fall in student numbers from India (see also Table 1) followed both the closure of the post-study work route in 2012, and the new student visa system introduced by the Home Office from 2010 onwards. The latter policy was aimed at reducing abuse of the student route, and included new controls for international students and the institutions hosting them, such as an English language requirement, a restriction on students below degree level bringing dependants, and the implementation of a Highly Trusted Status licence for sponsoring institutions. When these changes were introduced there was a sharp decline in the number of further education colleges licensed to sponsor students (see the Migration Observatory’s Election 2015 Briefing – UK Migration Policy since the 2010 General Election). Further education institutions had been an important destination for Indian students in particular.

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Work visa grants to non-EU former students fell by 84% from 2011 to 2018, before the decision to re-introduce post-study work from 2020/21

Some researchers argue that if international students continue to work in the UK after graduating this benefits the UK economy because they are young and UK-educated with specific skills such as language and cultural knowledge that can help UK businesses break into new markets (e.g., Hawthorne, 2008; Brown, 2009; Lomer, 2017, p. 127–198). Research commissioned by HEPI also found that international students who stayed in the UK after graduating made a substantial contribution to UK tax revenues (Conlon et al., 2019).

Others argue that the UK also benefits when international students return to their country of origin. This is because they may become the “UK’s ambassadors” (House of Lords, 2014; Lomer, 2017, p. 99–125), enhancing the UK’s ‘soft power’ by becoming leaders in their origin country (Hillman & Huxley, 2019b), or by creating business and research links with the UK (e.g., Mellors-Bourne et al., 2013; Holden & Tryhorn, 2013; Hill & Beadle, 2014).

In order to stay in the UK after their studies, students generally must switch to another type of visa, usually a work or family visa. In 2018, around 7,300 non-EU migrants who previously held study visas were granted extensions to stay in the UK to work. This was down 84% on the number for 2011, the year before the post-study work route was closed to new applicants (Figure 6). However, a new post-study work route similar to the previous one is expected to operate for international students starting from the 2020/21 academic year.  

Figure 6

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Most non-EU students leave the UK after their studies

Study visas are temporary and do not provide a direct route to settlement. Among non-EU migrants issued an initial study visa in 2013, 16% still had valid leave to remain around five years later at the end of 2018. Around 4% (around 6,600) held work visas, 10% (around 16,000) were still on study visas, and 0.1% (around 250) had settlement (Figure 7). The remaining 84% had an expired visa, and so would have been required to leave.

Home Office exit checks data show that at least 98% of non-EU students left on time. This figure represents the minimum level of compliance with visa duration, because the departures of many people go unrecorded (see Home Office, 2019b; 2019c).

There are differences between national groups in their status five years after initially coming to the UK on a study visa. For example, Indians are four times more likely than Chinese students to have a work visa, while Chinese students are more than twice as likely as Indians to have a study visa (Figure 7).

Figure 7

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Students who settle in the UK are usually on a ten-year route to settlement

The low numbers of students with settlement five years after arriving in the UK is due in part to students tending to be on a longer route to settlement than work, family, or asylum migrants – around ten years, rather than five years (see our briefing on Settlement in the UK).

Of all migrants granted settlement in 2018, 29% initially came to the UK on a study visa, and almost three-quarters of this group (72%) arrived in the five-year period from 2007 to 2011, consistent with a roughly ten-year route to settlement (Figure 8).

Figure 8

In 2018, an estimated 1.2 million foreign-born people who were living in the UK – 13% of all foreign-born – said that they originally moved to the UK to study (Office for National Statistics, 2019). This is equivalent to just under 2% of the UK’s total population.

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Research has consistently found that international students have positive economic impacts in the UK

Students’ main economic impact comes from them spending money in the UK, including on tuition fees, accommodation, subsistence, and travel. Most of the recent studies examining the economic impact of international students have focused on export earnings: expenditure on goods and services in the UK using money brought in from abroad (Figure 9).

Figure 9

The most recent estimate of the ‘overall economic impact’ of international students in UK higher education subtracted economic costs (e.g., use of public services) from benefits (e.g., tuition fee income, spending). It found that international students were a net economic contributor: £20.3bn in 2015/16, with non-EU-domiciled students generating 80% (£16.3bn) of the total (Conlon et al., 2018). The higher non-EU contribution was driven largely by the higher tuition fees charged to non-EU-domiciled students.

Because international students are typically young and with few dependants, they are thought to generate relatively little cost through demands on public services such as education for children and health (Conlon et al., 2018).

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Tuition fee income from non-EU students has grown in recent years, making up 14% of UK universities’ total income in 2017/18

Universities in England can charge UK and EU students up to £9,250 per year for undergraduate degree programmes. Postgraduate degree tuition fees vary substantially, depending on the university and subject, from around £4,900 a year to over £30,000, with the average around £11,000 per year (UCAS, 2020). Non-EU students tend to pay higher fees for undergraduate and postgraduate courses than UK and EU students, and thus generate more tuition fee revenue per person.

This has led researchers to conclude that non-EU students in effect ‘cross-subsidise’ the education of domestic students – for example by generating revenue for improved facilities or by sustaining a wider availability of courses (Migration Advisory Committee, 2018; Hillman, 2020). In the academic year 2017/18, the tuition fees of UK students (making up 80% of all UK HE students) contributed 30% of UK universities’ total annual income, while EU students contributed 3%, and non-EU students (making up 14% of all students) contributed 14%. Tuition fee income from non-EU students has become increasingly important in recent years; in 2000/01 it made up only 5% of UK higher education’s total income (Figure 10).

Figure 10

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Evidence Gaps and Limitations

While good quality data exists on international students in higher education, mainly from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there is comparatively little information on further education.

With regard to international students’ economic impact, the available research is limited largely to occasional studies of their export earnings: the revenue they generate through tuition fees and living expenditure. International students may have broader effects that are difficult to measure, such as their contribution to research or the UK’s soft power.

Nor is much known about the economic activities of students while they are studying, such as how many work, and what kind of work they do.

Acknowledgements

With special thanks to Nick Hillman at HEPI, for his detailed feedback on an earlier draft of this briefing, which brought substantial improvement. Research for this briefing was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Research England’s Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) QR allocation.

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