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Non-European Student Migration to the UK

20 Jul 2017

This briefing answers key questions about how many students from outside Europe come to the UK, where they come from, their characteristics, who sponsors them, and how many eventually settle in the country.

  1. Key Points
    • The number of international students coming to the UK has fallen since 2010.
    • Seven out of ten international students came from non-EU countries in 2016. Students from Asia make up the largest group of international students, over five times as many as the next largest group from the Middle East.
    • Eight out of ten sponsorships for international students in 2016 were made by UK higher education institutions.
    • Data sources on the extent to which students remain in the UK after their studies point in different directions.
    • Students bring fewer dependents to the UK compared to other pathways such as labour migrants.


  1. Understanding the Evidence

    Data on international students come from several different sources that use different definitions and that count students in different ways. For the purpose of estimating the contribution of students to overall counts of Long-Term International Migration (LTIM), the Official Office of National Statistics (ONS) makes estimates based on entrants’ expressed intent to stay for at least one year, as measured through the International Passenger Survey (IPS). By this measure, entrants to the UK who say they are here for formal study and who say that they plan to stay in the UK for at least 12 months are counted as migrants by the ONS.

    Alternative sources of data on student migration come from administrative data on ‘entry clearance visas’ issued to students, and ‘passenger entries’ of international students into the UK. Passenger entry data is based on a projection from a sample of landing cards filled out at ports of entry; visa data are actual counts of all visas issued.

    These data sources include international students expected to stay for less than one year, who are therefore not classified as migrants in the IPS/LTIM figures. They do, however, separately track ‘student visitor’ visas of eleven months or less; these are excluded from the analyses below. Administrative data do not cover EU or EEA (and Swiss) and British nationals, since visas and landing cards are required only of people subject to immigration control. (Nationalities subject to immigration control are non-EEA [European Economic Area] countries, plus Switzerland, often shortened to ‘non-EEA/Swiss nationals’.)

    The Home Office statistics classify the Middle East separately from Asia. ‘Europe Other’ refers to non-EU European countries, but as stated above, mostly covers nationalities that are subject to immigration control (in other words those that are non-EEA nor Switzerland).

    International students attend a wide range of institutions, including universities, colleges, language schools, vocational schools, English language schools, and independent fee-paying secondary schools. They range from secondary school-age children to postgraduate student researchers. Note that all Home Office statistics in this briefing that are greater than 1,000 are rounded to the nearest 100. Figures in tables and charts are not rounded.

International student arrivals have fallen since 2010

Data from each of the available sources are consistent in finding that student migration comprises a significant share of international migration to the UK, but has declined since 2010. The sources diverge as to the actual number of students arriving.

The IPS estimates that in 2016, 92,000 non-EU nationals came to study in the UK for at least a year. Adding British and EU citizens who migrated to the UK to study yields an estimate of 132,000 student migrants overall. In the same year, 195,000 visas were issued for purposes of study. The most recent available data on passenger entries show a figure of 174,000 as of 2015. These differences are likely to arise from counting students who stay for less than one year in administrative data, but it is impossible to know for sure from the presently available data. (For more on discrepancies between sources, see evidence gaps and limitations below.)

As Figure 1 shows, the trends over time also differ by data source. IPS estimates and visa data are broadly consistent, showing student migration increasing until around 2009 to 2010 and decreasing thereafter. (Reliable visa data are available only from 2007.)

Trends in passenger entry data are not clearly interpretable for two reasons. First, student visitors were included in this series until mid-2007; second, in mid-2003, the Home Office improved its methods of determining these data from samples of landing cards, making pre-2004 data less comparable. It appears, then, that earlier data overestimated student entries. This means that there probably was an increase in passenger entries between 2000 and 2010 that is masked by these changes in data methods and presentation.

Figure 1

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Seven out of ten international students came from non-EU countries in 2016, and 60% were female in 2015.

According to IPS estimates, international students come primarily from non-EU countries. In 2016, about 70% of students moving to the UK came from non-EU countries (92,000 out of 132,000). Figure 2 shows how this proportion has changed over time.

Figure 2

Meanwhile, passenger entry data from the Home Office reveals more detail about where these students and their dependents come from. Figure 3 shows that in 2015 the greatest number of students and dependents came from Asia (about 118,600) followed by the Middle East (19,700). Significant recent changes include a sharp drop from North America (over 70,000 each year from 2005-2007, down to 14,900 in 2015). Between 2008 and 2009, there was nearly a 50% one-year increase in Asian students and their dependents (124,600 to 183,600) but the number has fallen since 2010.

Figure 3

The gender ratio of student migrants has fluctuated over time. In 2015 over 60% of all student migrants were female. This is a reversal of previous trends. As seen in Figure 4, during the 2000s male students consistently outnumbered female students; however since 2012 females have increasingly outnumbered males.

Figure 4

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More than 800 sponsor institutions lost their licenses between 2010 and 2014

From 2010 onwards, the UK government introduced a series of policies designed to address ‘abuse’ of the student visa route, particularly where non-EEA migrants might enter the UK under a formal study visa but have actually worked instead. As part of these changes, all education sponsors were required to apply for ‘highly trusted’ status. This required them to meet a number of criteria, including having a low rate of student visa refusals and a high rate of course completion.

Between 1 May 2010 and 7 October 2014, 836 education providers lost their licences, preventing them from bringing non-EEA students to the UK. Interpreting this number is not entirely straightforward. Firstly, some licenses were revoked because institutions did not apply for highly trusted status. This may be because institutions knew they did not meet the new criteria. Other reasons for losing licences could be that education providers had stopped operating or went bankrupt. Secondly, some providers on the list of organizations that had their license revoked during this period reapplied and had their license reinstated. Thirdly, not all the colleges that lost their licenses will have closed.

Although they can no longer sponsor non-EEA students, they are not prevented from operating for domestic or EEA students. Specific data on each of these categories of revocation are not available, but management data provided by the Home Office suggest that:

  • 223 licenses were revoked because the sponsor did not apply for highly trusted status by October 2011 (this does not include colleges that had not yet been licensed for at least 12 months at that point, and who therefore faced a later deadline).
  • A further 237 colleges either failed to meet a later deadline to apply for HTS, or applied and were refused.

By March 2015, 70 colleges with previously revoked licenses were currently licensed again under the same name (this does not include any who may have applied under a new name).
As of March 2017, there were 1,281 education providers with licenses to sponsor students from outside the EU.

Data on student visa applications includes information on the types of educational institutions that act as sponsors. Figure 5 shows the number of visa applications made by student migrants using visa sponsorships. In 2016, the majority of international students (83%, or 167,500) were sponsored by UK-based higher education institutions. The remainder were sponsored by tertiary, further education or other colleges (7%), English language schools (1%), independent schools (7%) and others (1%). It is important to note that not all students receiving visa sponsorship take up the offer to come to the UK.
The decrease in visa sponsorships from 2010 to 2015 was driven by lower numbers sponsored by tertiary or further education colleges. Sponsorships at UK-based higher education institutions continued to rise slowly during this period.

Figure 5

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Mixed data on student migrants adding to the permanent population

Student visas are temporary, which means they do not provide a direct legal route to settlement. Student migrants are thought to have shorter stays in the UK than other types of migrants. According to Home Office data, of those who entered in 2010 on a student visa (or as a student’s dependent), only 19% still had valid leave to remain in the UK five years later in 2015, and only 1% had received indefinite leave to remain (Home Office 2017). This is consistent with results for previous cohorts (see Achato et al. 2010).
In order to remain the UK after their studies, students must generally switch into another visa category, such as work or family. In 2016, 8,800 people who previously held study visas were granted extensions to remain in the UK in a category other than study. This is down from 44,100 in 2012, the year in which the dedicated ‘post-study work’ route was closed.

By contrast, estimates from the IPS suggest lower shares of students departing. In 2012, the IPS began to ask departing emigrants why they had come to Britain in the first place (for those who were former immigrants rather than people who had always resided in Britain).

The data since 2012 has consistently showed approximately 40,000 to 50,000 non-EU former students departing, significantly fewer than the 110,000 to 140,000 estimated to be arriving during this period. According to ONS (2016), the difference between the IPS and Home Office data cannot currently be explained confidently. It is possible that the gap could arise from a failure of the IPS to accurately measure outflows of former students, from students overstaying their visas and remaining in the UK, or a combination of the two.

Figure 6

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Students bring fewer dependents than other categories of migrants

The ratio of main applicants to dependents awarded Tier 4 Student visas is approximately 15:1, meaning that slightly more than one dependent visa is granted entry for every 15 main applicant student visas. For Tier 2 labour migrants the ratio historically has ranged between 10:6.5 and 10:8.

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Evidence gaps and limitations

The usual inconsistencies among different sources of data on UK migration flows apply to the estimation of student migration. The sources of data include Home Office and LTIM estimates from the International Passenger Survey, and changes in the population of foreign students in the UK estimated by the quarterly Labour Force Survey.

Each of these sources has important limitations as a measure of student migrants coming to the UK.

  • IPS is a survey of a randomly-selected sample of passengers entering and leaving the UK, rather than an actual count of migrants and other passengers. This has several implications. First, the IPS yields only estimates of migration, and these estimates come with a substantial margin of error as well as possible unknown biases. Further, the IPS detects students through a single question asking passengers to report their primary reason for migration; thus it might undercount students if some give a different primary reason for coming to the UK, including work or accompanying family. The IPS includes EU as well as non-EU nationalities. The ONS publishes estimates of EU and non-EU citizens separately, but these estimates are based only on IPS data and do not include the adjustments (e.g. for “switching” from short-term to longer-term stays in the UK) that the ONS makes to produce LTIM from IPS data. The estimates of student migration from IPS data are usually slightly lower than adjusted LTIM estimates.
  • Administrative data exclude EEA and Swiss citizens, and include individuals who are not long-term migrants by ONS definitions. Students staying between 6 and 12 months need student visas to enter but do not stay long enough to meet the ONS definition of a long-term migrant. Visa data also include some people who get visas but never come to the UK – a 2010 Home Office report on students found that, for a subset of educational institutions they examined, 20% of those offered admission and granted a CAS and/or visa did not enter the UK. The 20% figure is not reliable, as it was drawn from a “convenience sample” and may not be representative, but the conceptual point remains valid. Passenger entry data may double-count some arrivals, or otherwise overestimate student entries. (Passenger entries of students consistently exceed visas, although the reverse should be true if some visa-grantees do not arrive and visas are required for entry.)
  • LFS data probably undercount students, especially those living in dormitories and other communal dwellings. Also, the LFS includes information on the number of international students in the UK at any one time, but has only began in 2010 to ask respondents whether they came to the UK for the purpose of study, so it has limited value for examining trends over time.

The 2010 Home Office report on student migration, and follow-up studies since then, included an analysis of international students’ compliance. However, this analysis is based on a sample of institutions chosen not at random, but for “convenience”. More specifically, the study examined universities on the UK government’s Highly Trusted Sponsors list, while choosing other educational institutions from a list of those that had been subject to investigations because of suspicions about their legitimacy. Thus, one would suspect that this methodological choice would lead to underestimating non- compliance rates for university students while inflating non-compliance rates for other institutions. Moreover, the data do not show actual overstayers but only the “potentially non-compliant”- those for whom there is no record of leaving the UK or of valid extension of their stay. But since data on exits from the UK are among the weakest points in UK migration data, this study cannot be taken as an accurate measure of actual overstaying or “non-compliance”, either overall or for students at particular types of institutions.

Overstaying should not be confused with legitimate extensions to student visas, as sometimes occurs in media reports.  Legitimate extensions through work, family, or extended study are shown in administrative data and examined in the Migrant Journey research reports produced by the Home Office (Achato et al. 2010, Home Office 2013, Home Office 2016).

Finally, there has been concern among politicians and the public about “bogus colleges” sponsoring entries but not actually offering courses of study (Anderson and Rogaly 2005), and about possible “non-compliance”- students overstaying their visas and staying in the UK without legal permission to remain. As is generally true for non-compliance with immigration law, it is difficult to capture these in official data.

The Home Office studied the issue of bogus colleges in 2007, prior to the PBS and the tightening of rules for institutions registering to teach foreign students. This study found that 25% of 1200 colleges inspected were not “genuine” (Home Affairs Committee 2009), but there are no comparable data on post-PBS accredited institutions. A subsequent Home Office study (Home Office 2010) may not provide valid estimates as it relied on samples of convenience rather than representative samples.


  • Achato, Lorrah, Mike Eaton, and Chris Jones. “The Migrant Journey.” Home Office Research Report 43, Home Office, London, 2010.
  • Anderson, B. and B. Rogaly. “Forced Labour and Migration to the UK.” Study prepared by COMPAS in collaboration with the Trades Union Congress, TUC, London, 2005.
  • Home Affairs Committee. Bogus Colleges: Eleventh Report of Session 2008-09. House of Commons, 2009. HC 595.
  • Home Office. “Statistics on changes in migrants’ visa and leave status: 2015” Home Office, London, 2017.
  • Home Office. “Overseas Students in the Immigration System: Types of Institution and Levels of Study.” UK Border Agency, Home Office, London, 2010.
  • Office for National Statistics. “Long-Term International Migration, International student migration – what do the statistics tell us?” ONS, January 2016.
  • McVeigh, Karen. “One in Five Overseas Students Remains in UK after Five Years, Home Office Report Shows.” Guardian, September 6, 2010.

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