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You say stability, I say stagnation

Eleanor Jubb

Eleanor Jubb

Former Policy Manager
Universities UK

​Today's HESA release confirms what Universities UK has been saying for some time: the number of international students choosing to study in the UK is stagnating. 

This is the most comprehensive annual data on student numbers at higher education institutions in the UK and our first comprehensive look at 2016–17. Unlike the Home Office's and UCAS's data, which show visa and new undergraduate applications respectively, the HESA data tells us how many students actually enrolled and where they're from (among a wealth of other data).

As in last year's release there has been some growth in students from the EU, fuelled by the record number of new undergraduates from the EU who came through UCAS's 2016 cycle. The number of students who come from the EU is up by 6%, and new EU entrants are up by 7%.

But the majority of these students will have started their course or made their decision before the Brexit vote and it's not clear whether this increase will withstand the shock of the decision to leave the EU. Numbers from the 2017 UCAS cycle show a fall in EU applicants.  

And numbers of students from outside the EU has fallen slightly, down by 1%. The number of new students from outside the EU (which offer a better indication of what's changed this year and what the future might offer) are static, following a fall of 1% last year.

Looking at just non-EU students, the number of international students has barely changed since 2010–11: international students are just 3% higher in 2016–17 than they were in that year, and new non-EU students are 1% lower. And this stagnation is happening when the number of students looking to study internationally is growing. UNESCO estimates that there were 4.1 million tertiary education students studying overseas in 2016, up from 3.5 million in 2011. The chart below shows total international students in the UK between 2011 and 2016, against the growing number of students worldwide who chose to study abroad over that period.


This is bad news because international students bring widespread benefits to the country they study in. They boost their host country's soft power, supporting trade and diplomatic links. Having an internationalised student body is, not surprisingly, seen as a marker of being a world-leading university, and is used in global university league tables like the Times Higher and QS rankings. Studying alongside international students benefits home students, providing them with a diverse campus and helping to prepare them for a global working environment. International students also contribute to their local communities, volunteering, supporting local services and spending money.

As HEPI's research​, also out today, shows, international students make a net economic contribution to all constituencies in the UK. Their report estimates that nationally international students have a net economic benefit of £20.3 billion across the UK, with each non-EU student bringing a net benefit of £95,000 and each EU student bringing £68,000. Our own research shows that spending by international students and their visitors support 206,600 FTE jobs across the UK. They are pretty much an unalloyed good. ​

The Migration Advisory Committee's (MAC) call for evidence on the impact of international students, which closes on 26 January, gives us an unparalleled opportunity to make the case for the many ways in which international students benefit the UK. The MAC's advice will form the basis future student migration policy, and could help institute changes which move the UK from stagnation to growth. It's vital that as many people in the sector and outside of it respond to the MAC. If you haven't already started, you've got just over two weeks to get your arguments in order!


Leave a Comment

Lucia says:
11 January 2018 at 16:40

What a great article! Thanks for your insights! I might just add my belief or rather fear that with a reduced number of applicants (meaning EU and international students) after Brexit, overall university standards are going to lower too. UK has (one of) the best university system(s) in the world, hope it’s not walking straight into inevitable doom!

Roy.M.Ma says:
15 January 2018 at 08:29

Following the logic of this article, it's not hard to reach the conclusion that Brexit, while wreaking havoc in other parts of the Higher Education sector in the UK, will probably free up valuable vacancies from money-consuming EU students for third-country students to fill. In this sense, this "stagnation" is more likely to be a new era in the making :-)

Anonymous says:
5 February 2018 at 19:48

Britain needs to encourage a diverse workforce in cultural and skilled terms. Not only that but encouraging EU students to study in the UK means that there is a greater chance for the students to continue to work in the country (further boosting the economy) as they will be closer to home.

The income to the economy is slightly less for EU students as currently they have the same fees as home students. Encouraging EU students to study and work in the UK also encourages cross-channel business especially with the collaboration between high skilled, high tech industries.

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