Overseas students turn away from the UK

Proudly international: But are visa restrictions driving away the world’s brightest minds?

Foreign students coming to study in the UK’s world-class universities bring in £10bn a year, but the numbers are falling. Is it just a question of finances or should we have other concerns?

‘Just an old country apt for travel and study,’ is how one Chinese newspaper dismissively described the UK during David Cameron’s last China trip.

While the jibe was provocative, it highlighted Britain’s standing as a global powerhouse in education, second only to the US. Ten of its universities are in the top hundred of the annual THE’s World University Rankings and each year it attracts over 300,000 new international and EU students for full-time courses. Almost a quarter of these students come from China. In this context, the newspaper’s comment almost seems like a compliment.

Yet a new study by the Higher Education Funding Council shows that this reputation is under threat. In 2013 the number of international and EU students starting British courses fell by 4,595, to 307,205. That’s a significant drop coming after nearly 30 years of annual double-digit rises. Many experts worry that it is the start of a trend. They think that higher fees and tougher visa restrictions are driving potential overseas students elsewhere.

The latter were introduced in 2012 after it was found that more than a quarter of foreign students at London Metropolitan University did not have official permission to stay in the UK, and some lacked even basic English skills. Further investigations found that many ‘language centres’ were not schools, but a system to help immigrants enter the country. In one case, supposed ‘students’ were able to pay £500 to pass an English test.

Visa restrictions do make it more difficult for bogus students to enter the country, but the new study argues that genuine students are being caught up in what the business secretary, Vince Cable calls the country’s current ‘public panic’ about immigration.

Is the UK warding off security threats and future claims on the welfare state by repelling students from abroad as some suggest? Or is it just depriving itself of a close relationship with the best brains of tomorrow, individuals who pay the fees on which universities increasingly depend and who could also bring great benefits to the country?

Lessons in hospitality

Some argue that while tighter visa rules may make the UK seem less attractive, it is worth losing a few thousand potential students to ensure that our immigration system is not being abused. The number of legitimate students who can come to the UK to study is not a problem, they say; they are very welcome.

Others warn that the UK is driving away talented young people who will instead boost the economies of other countries. Politicians sounding tough on immigration merely benefit countries like the US and Australia, who are happy to welcome foreign talent. We must change path before it is too late.

You Decide

  1. Which is more important: welcoming international students or tighter border security?
  2. ‘UK universities should only be open to UK students.’ Do you agree? Why/why not?


  1. If the number of foreign students starting new UK courses fell by 4,595 to 307,205 in 2013, how many foreign students started new UK courses in 2012? Work out the percentage decrease between the years.
  2. Do some research into the benefits of studying either in the UK or abroad. List five of them, and then write a paragraph explaining which option you would prefer. Give your reasons.

Some People Say...

“Every foreign student who comes to the UK boosts its standing in the world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How do foreign students studying in the UK affect me?
It is partly a matter of whether we want Britain to be seen around the world as a welcoming place; many say that tough new visa laws make the country seem forbidding. But students willing to move to a new country to study tend to be highly motivated people who often end up contributing more in the long run.
What makes British universities so good?
Around the world they are regarded as first-class institutions for teaching and research and attract some of the world’s most talented specialists in many fields. In the past, their success has been seen as self-fulfilling: their reputations mean they attract top individuals to work and study in them, which in turn leads to high-quality research, which adds still further to their reputations.

Word Watch

London has more universities in the top 100 than any other city in the world – six. And only the US has more universities in the top 100.
Enrolment on postgraduate courses for Iranian students dropped by 39%, by 26% for Indian students and by 20% for Pakistani students.
The report says that many EU undergraduate students have been scared off by the trebling of university fees to £9,000 a year. For international students, these fees can be £18,000 a year, excluding living costs.
The tougher rules require overseas students to have a higher level of English, limit the amount of extra-curricular work they can undertake, and make it more difficult for spouses and relatives to enter the UK.

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