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Student Migration to the UK

14 Jul 2021

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

  1. Key Points
    • COVID-19 had a major effect on student migration to the UK in 2020.
    • International students made up 22% of all students in UK higher education in 2019/20.
    • Among international students starting in UK higher education in 2019/20, 80% came from non-EU countries, and one third came from China.
    • University College London welcomed the largest number of new international students in the academic year 2019/20.
    • From 2008 to 2018, the UK lost global market share in international students to Australia, Canada, and China, although the absolute number of international students coming to the UK increased.
    • Work visa grants to non-EU former students fell by 84% from 2011 to 2020, before the decision to re-introduce post-study work from 2020/21.
    • Most non-EU students leave the UK after their studies.
    • Students who remain longer term usually take ten years to settle in the UK.
    • Research has consistently found that international students have positive economic impacts in the UK.
    • Tuition fee income from non-EU students grew from 2000/01 to 2018/19, making up 14% of UK universities’ total income in 2018/19.
  1. Understanding the Policy

    Under EU freedom of movement, EU citizens paid the same tuition fees as ‘Home’ students, and were entitled to the same subsidised tuition fee loans. ... Click to read more.

    However, following the end of free movement on 31 December 2020, the academic year 2020/21 is the last year that EU citizens will enjoy the same benefits as Home students. From 1 August 2021, new EU students will generally be subject to the higher international student tuition fees, without entitlement to taxpayer-subsidised loans. From 1 January 2021, all foreign 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).

    In this briefing, the term ‘EU’ includes Switzerland and the three additional EEA countries – Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Norway – none of which were subject to immigration control prior to the end of free movement. ‘Home’ students refers to British and Irish citizens who are ordinarily resident in the UK and lived there for at least three years before starting their course.

    The new ‘points-based immigration system’ provides a Student route for non-UK nationals to study with an approved education provider, so long as they meet minimum English language requirements and can support themselves while they are in the UK. The Student route is largely unchanged from the one it replaced, which was known as ‘Tier 4’, and was a part of the previous five-tier system.

    In recent years, there have been several changes to international student policy. In 2008, the post-study work route was expanded to allow students of any subject to stay in the UK for two years after graduation and work in any job, without needing to be sponsored by an employer. This route was closed to new applicants in 2012, and students’ permission to work was restricted. However, this route will be reintroduced in summer 2021. Rebranded as the ‘Graduate’ route, it will allow students to stay in the UK for two years after graduation – or three years if they are a PhD graduate – to live and work at any skill level, and to switch into skilled work routes if they find a suitable job.

    When former international students apply to stay on in the UK on a Skilled Worker visa, their employers do not have to pay them at the ‘experienced worker’ rate, but rather a 30% lower salary for ‘new entrants’, so long as it is at least £20,480.

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

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    Many international students stay in the UK for only a few weeks to study English (Migration Advisory Committee, 2018, p.4). ... Click to read more.

    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.

    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 are UK-domiciled students. Data are sometimes restricted to “newly enrolled” students, to give an indication of annual inflow.

    The HESA data used in this briefing was changed in 2021 to make it more comprehensive. For years prior to 2021, HESA’s student data related mainly to all publicly funded higher education providers in the UK (and the University of Buckingham), and higher-education-level provision at further education colleges in Wales. But for 2021 onwards, HESA has broadened its data to also include higher education providers in England registered with the Office for Students (OfS) in the Approved (fee cap) or Approved categories. This means that the statistics for 2021 are not strictly comparable with those for previous years.

    This briefing also uses Home Office data on student visa issuances and extensions. These do not include EU citizens, because before 2021 they did not require visas.

    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).

    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, 2020b). 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.

COVID-19 had a major effect on student migration to the UK in 2020

COVID-19 had a large effect upon student migration to the UK. This is clear from the number of student visa issuances (to non-EU citizens). Issuances of student visas have a seasonal pattern: most are issued in the third quarter of a year (i.e., in July, August, or September), before the beginning of the academic year in September. In Q2 2020, issuances of student visas were down 99% compared with Q2 2019, and in Q3 2020 47% fewer were issued than in the same quarter in the previous year.

Figure 1

There is some evidence that by October 2020, international students who had been issued visas had become less likely to take them up and more likely to bring forward their departures from the UK (ONS, 2021). This may reflect larger numbers of students studying remotely. It is not yet clear how many have returned to the UK since then, however.

This briefing now examines the most recent data on higher education students, for the academic year 2019/20, largely before the pandemic began to have an effect.

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International students made up 22% of all students in UK higher education in 2019/20

Study is a major reason for moving to the UK (see the Migration Observatory briefings, Migrants in the UK: An Overview and Who migrates to the UK and why?. In the academic year 2019/20, around 557,000 international students, both EU and non-EU, were studying in UK higher education institutions, the largest number on record (Figure 2), up 12% on 2018/19. In 2019/20, international students made up 22% of all students in UK higher education. These figures predate the pandemic-induced decline in student visa issuances, described above.

The number of newly enrolled international students (i.e., those starting their course) also reached a record high in 2019/20 of around 320,000, up 17% on the previous year (Figure 2).

Figure 2

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Among international students starting in UK higher education in 2019/20, 80% came from non-EU countries, and one third came from China

A large majority of international students starting in higher education come from outside the EU. In the academic year 2019/20, non-EU students made up 80% of the annual intake (Figure 3). This is despite non-EU domiciled students paying higher tuition fee rates than Home students and not being entitled to subsidised tuition fee loans.

UK universities have become increasingly reliant on students from a single country, China, whose absolute numbers more than tripled from 2006/07 to 2019/20. In 2019/20, they made up 33% of all newly enrolled students (Figure 3 and 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 across all levels and not just in higher education accounted for 35% of all international students (not just newly-enrolled students) in the academic year 2019/20 (IIE, 2021). In Australia, the figure was 38% (Department of Education, Skills and Employment, 2021).

Meanwhile, Indian student numbers fell from 2011/12, which may have been due in part to the abolition of the post-study work visa, though numbers had increased again by 2019/20, before the pandemic. 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 900 in 2019 (Home Office, 2021a).

Figure 3

Table 1

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University College London welcomed the largest number of new international students in the academic year 2019/20

In the academic year 2019/20, around 320,000 international students began their first year in UK higher education. The most popular university destinations were University College London (11,820), The University of Manchester (8,400), The University of Edinburgh (8,195), King’s College London (7,780), and Coventry University (7,755) (Table 2).

Table 2

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From 2008 to 2018, the UK lost global market share in international students to Australia, Canada, and China, although the absolute number of international students coming to the UK increased

Although the UK has more than doubled its intake of international students over the past 20 years, from 2008 to 2018 its global market share fell from 11% to 8% (Figure 4).

Figure 4

The UK and the United States, traditionally also a popular choice for international students, both lost market share during this period, while Australia, Canada, and China gained (Figure 5).

Figure 5

The higher education sector has raised concerns that the decline in the UK’s market share of international students resulted from changes in policy in the 2010–2015 term of government, 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 policies do indeed influence the choices of students to study here – but in addition to 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 6).

Figure 6

The post-2011 fall in student numbers from India (also shown in Table 1) followed the closure of the post-study work route in 2012 and the introduction by the Home Office of a new student visa system from 2010 onwards. The latter policy was aimed at reducing abuse of the student route, and included new controls on international students and the institutions hosting them. These included an English language requirement for students, 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 2020, before the decision to re-introduce post-study work from 2020/21

Some researchers argue that it benefits the UK economy when international students continue to work in the UK after graduating, because they are young, UK-educated, and 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).

To stay in the UK after their studies, students generally must switch to another type of visa, usually a work or family visa. In 2020, around 7,400 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 of grants in 2011, the year before the post-study work route was closed to new applicants (Figure 7). However, a new post-study work route, the ‘Graduate’ route, has been introduced for summer 2021, which is similar to the previous post-study work route.

Figure 7

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Most non-EU students leave the UK after their studies

Study visas are temporary, and they do not provide a direct route to settlement. That is, time spent on a study visa does not count towards the five years of residence in the UK that is ordinarily required before a migrant may apply for settlement. Among non-EU migrants issued an initial study visa in 2015, only 15% still had permission to stay in the UK (i.e., valid leave to remain) around five years later at the end of 2020. Around 4% (around 5,400) held work visas, 10% (around 14,000) were still on study visas, and around 0.1% (127) had settlement (Figure 8). The remaining 85% had an expired visa, and so would have been required to leave the UK.

Home Office exit checks data show that at least 98% of non-EU students left on time for those whose visas expired in the year ending March 2020 (Home Office, 2020a, p. 1). This figure represents the minimum level of compliance with visa duration, because the departures of some people are not recorded, or are not matched against their arrival in the system (see Home Office, 2020a, p. 1).

There are notable differences between national groups in their status five years after initially coming to the UK on a study visa. For example, Indians are more than four times as likely as Chinese students to have moved onto a work visa, while Chinese students are more than twice as likely as Indians to still have a study visa (Figure 8).

Figure 8

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Students who remain longer term usually take ten years to settle in the UK

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 2020, 19% initially came to the UK on a study visa (Home Office, 2021b, p. 10; includes main applicants and dependants), and almost three-quarters of this group (73%) arrived in the five-year period from 2009 to 2013, consistent with a roughly ten-year route to settlement (Figure 9).

Figure 9

In 2019, an estimated 1.2 million foreign-born people who were living in the UK – 13% of all the foreign-born – said that they originally moved to the UK to study (Office for National Statistics, 2020). 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 10).

Figure 10

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.

International higher education students also contribute to the UK economy after their graduation by paying taxes. A 2019 study estimated that the 2016/17 cohort of international students will contribute £3.2bn to government revenues in the first ten years after graduation through income tax, VAT, and National Insurance payments – £1.2bn from EU students and £2bn from non-EU students (Conlon et al., 2019).

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., 2019).

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Tuition fee income from non-EU students grew from 2000/01 to 2018/19, making up 14% of UK universities’ total income in 2018/19

Before the end of free movement, universities in England could 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 tended, before Brexit, 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 have in effect been ‘cross-subsidising’ 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 2018/19, the tuition fees of UK students (making up 78% of all UK HE students) contributed 29% of UK universities’ total annual income, while EU students (making up 6%) contributed 3%, and non-EU students (making up 16% 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 11). The published figures, however, do not yet reflect any impacts of the pandemic and the reduction in non-EU student numbers.

Figure 11

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Evidence Gaps and Limitations

While good quality data exist 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. Yet 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.


With special thanks to Nick Hillman at HEPI, for his detailed feedback on the 2020 version 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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