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Non-European Student Migration to the UK

05 Oct 2018

This briefing examines 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
    • International student arrivals fell sharply from 2010 to 2016, but there was a small increase in 2017
    • Around 70% of international students came from non-EU countries in 2017, and China was the largest source country by some distance
    • More than 800 sponsor institutions lost their licenses between 2010 and 2014, following changes to the student visa system from 2010
    • Non-EU students getting visas to study at Russell Group universities increased gradually from 2010 to 2017, while those going to further education fell
    • Most students leave the UK after their studies rather than staying on for work or other reasons
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    Data on international students come from several sources that use different definitions and that count students in different ways. The main data sources to analyse non-EU student migration are the following: on one hand, the International Passenger Survey (IPS) data, released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS); entry clearance visa data provided by the Home Office; and data on student enrolments by domicile, from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

    ONS data categorise students as either long-term or short-term migrants depending on whether their intended duration of stay is more or less than 12 months. This is measured through the International Passenger Survey (IPS), which is taken at ports of entry and exit from the UK. The IPS estimates are based on a person’s intention to migrate, not actual behaviour. IPS is a survey of a randomly-selected sample of passengers rather than an actual count. As a result, it yields only estimates of migration, and these estimates come with a substantial margin of error as well as possible unknown biases. It relies on self-reporting of reason for migration and only includes the main reason; people may have more than one reason for moving, however.

    Visa data are actual counts of all visas issued. The data used in this briefing are for ‘entry clearance’ and thus will not include people who switch in-country to a student visa from a different visa. The visa data separately classify short-term students (max six months, or 11 months for some language students) and other students coming for longer courses, although not all students will stay for the full duration of their course. Short-term (previously known as ‘student visitor’) visas are excluded from the analyses below. Home Office data do not cover EU or EEA (and Swiss) and British nationals, since visas are required only of people subject to immigration control. Visa data include people who get visas but never come to the UK – a Home Office (2010) report on students found that, for a subset of educational institutions they examined, 20% of those offered admission and granted a 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.

    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 inflows fell from 2010 to 2016, but there was an increase in 2017

Student migration comprises a significant share of immigration to the UK. The number of international students moving to the UK grew steadily over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, with a particularly sharp increase in student visas issued in 2009. Student visas and long-term immigration numbers both declined from 2010 to 2016. This coincided with policy changes that tightened the eligibility criteria for education institutions seeking to sponsor students to come to the UK (see below). The decline was concentrated in further education and English language schools (see below).

As Figure 1 shows, the trends over time also differ slightly by data source. The visa data show higher numbers of entries than the IPS data (211,300 and 128,000, respectively). This difference is likely to arise in large part from student visa holders planning to spend less than one year. (For more on discrepancies between sources, see evidence gaps and limitations below.)

Note that the temporary decrease in student inflows measured in the IPS data in 2016 is thought to be a statistical anomaly rather than a real change in student numbers. This decline in the IPS data is not reflected in visa data. The ONS (2018) has said that this anomaly was ‘probably due to 2016 having fewer than expected number of interview shifts’ in September, the peak month for student arrivals.

The visa data, which is more reliable for the purpose of tracking trends over time, suggests that the number of visas issued to non-EU students increased by 9% from 2016 to 2017. In 2017, 211,300 visas to non-EU/EEA migrants were issued for purposes of study.

Figure 1

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About 70% of international students came from non-EU countries in 2017 and China is the biggest single source country by some distance

International students come primarily from non-EU countries. In 2017, an estimated 70% of students moving to the UK came from non-EU countries (128,000 out of 184,000 non-UK long-term immigrants). Separate data on higher education student enrolments from HESA show a similar picture, with 70% of non-UK domiciled higher education students in the 2016/17 academic year coming from non-EU countries (HESA, 2018).

The top three nationalities of non-EU citizens receiving study visas are China, India and the United States (Figure 2). China has been an increasingly important country of origin for international students, rising from just 10% of student visas in 2005 to 40% in 2017.

The significant drop in student migration from India is thought to be related to the new student visa system introduced by the Home Office from 2010 onwards, which was aimed at reducing abuse of the student route. These changes included new requirements for international students and the institutions hosting them, such as English language competence, restriction to bring dependants for below degree level students, or a Highly Trusted Status license for sponsoring institutions.

Figure 2

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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 a Highly Trusted Status (HTS). 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. First, some licenses were revoked because institutions did not apply for HTS. 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 HTS 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 had been currently licensed again under the same name (this does not include any who may have applied under a new name).

The number of institutions licensed to sponsor students has continued to decrease over time. As of April 2018, there were 1,236 education providers with licenses to sponsor students from outside the EU. This is roughly half the number (2,370) of institutions on the sponsor register in October 2011.

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The number of non-EU students going to Russell Group universities increased from 2010 to 2017, while numbers in further education fell

Data on student visa applications includes information on the types of educational institutions that act as sponsors. Figure 3 shows the number of visa applications made by non-EU students by sponsor type. In 2017, the majority of non-EU students (84%, or 177,773) were sponsored by UK-based higher education institutions; these sponsorships were almost equally distributed between Russell Group universities (87,235) and other universities (90,538). The remainder were sponsored by tertiary, further education or other colleges (7%), English language schools (2%), independent schools (6.5%) and others (1%). Not all students receiving visa sponsorship will necessarily take up the offer to come to the UK.

A 20% decrease in total visa sponsorships from 2010 to 2016 was driven by tertiary or further education colleges, which experienced a sharp decrease in sponsorships in 2012. This decrease is most likely related to the new restrictions implemented in the new student visa system from 2010. On the other hand, sponsorships at Russell Group universities have slowly but continuously increased from 2010 to 2017, while numbers at other universities plateaued. Russell Group universities sponsored almost the same number of students as other non-Russell Group higher education institutions in 2017.

Figure 3

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Most non-EU students leave the UK at the end of their studies

Student visas are temporary, which means they do not provide a direct legal route to settlement. According to Home Office data, of those who had a student visa at the end of 2011, only 14% still had valid leave to remain in the UK five years later at the end of 2016. The remaining 86% had expired leave to remain, i.e. they were required to have left the UK (Figure 4). Separate Home Office ‘exit checks’ data show high levels of compliance with the requirement to leave (Home Office, 2017).

Figure 4

In order to remain the UK after their studies, students must generally switch into another visa category, such as work or family. In 2017, 8,486 people who previously held study visas were granted extensions to remain in the UK in a category other than study. This is down from 44,144 (81% decrease) in 2012, the year in which the dedicated ‘post-study work’ route was closed (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

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

The data since 2012 has generally 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. It is now recognised that these data cannot be correct and that the IPS undercounts non-EU student emigration (ONS, 2018).

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Evidence gaps and limitations

There are substantial limitations in the IPS data on immigration and emigration by reason for moving. Student arrivals are clustered in a single month – September – which means that the margins of error on IPS student immigration rates are likely to be higher than for other categories (ONS, 2018). It has also become clear in recent years that the IPS data on student emigration by initial reason for entering the country are not reliable and appear to undercount non-EU student emigration (ibid). In 2017, the Office for Statistics Regulation (2017) recommended that these figures should be labelled as ‘experimental statistics’ until questions about their quality are resolved.

Until there is more clarity on the reasons behind the problems in the emigration estimates, it is not advisable to attempt to construct estimates of how each different category of migration (e.g. students, family, work) contribute to net migration overall. This data uncertainty also has implications for the question of the role of international students in the government’s net migration target. Because non-EU students’ contribution to net migration is not known, it would be difficult to remove them from the target.

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.


  • 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
  • HESA. 2018. Where do HE Students Come From?
  • Home Office. “Statistics on changes in migrants’ visa and leave status: 2016” Home Office, London, 2018
  • Home Office. “Overseas Students in the Immigration System: Types of Institution and Levels of Study.” UK Border Agency, Home Office, London, 2010
  • Home Office. 2017. “Second report on statistics being collected under the exit checks programme”
  • Office for National Statistics. 2018. “Report on international migration data sources: July 2018”
  • Office for Statistics Regulation. 2017. “The quality of the long-term student migration statistics.”

Next Update

December 5, 2019


Dr Scott Blinder
Mariña Fernández-Reino

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