Many are wondering if the UK really wants international students! For as soon as it hits – and then exceeds – its target for recruiting over 600,000 high fee-paying overseas students, the government goes into a panic mode and bans dependants of those coming for taught master’s degrees.

It has not gone down well in Nigeria, which together with India has seen a surge in interest in studying in the UK since a more liberal post-study work environment enabled global graduates to stay and look for a job for two years instead of just six months, which was policy between 2012 and 2021.

Expect a dip in demand after an initial rush to beat the ban due to start in January 2024!

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman

That will dismay higher education leaders now counting on the lucrative tuition fees from foreign students to compensate for the fees from UK students, which have been frozen for a decade.

However, it may suit British Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the Rishi Sunak Conservative  government which hopes to bring down net migration figures down before the next general election, expected next year.

As my fellow University World News contributor Olabisi Deji-Folutile reported on 1 June 2023, data from the UK Home Office shows that 66,796 dependant visas were issued to families of Nigerian students from March 2022 to March 2023. This is a 146%  increase from the 27,137 dependants who migrated from the most populous African nation to the UK from March 2021 to March 2022.

Ban hits Nigerians 

University World News found that Nigerians believe they are likely to be disproportionately affected by the ban when it comes into effect in 2024. 

“According to them, preventing students from taking their family abroad would only cause emotional trauma, limited performance, and eventually defeat the purpose of study.

“Some respondents also took offence to perceived allusions that they are a problem, expressing that international students add wealth and value to the UK economy,” said UWN quoting Nigerian journalist and publisher of The Republic, Wale Lawal, asking how the UK could charge ‘exorbitant fees’ and still frame the legal immigration discourse like it’s something they ‘hand out’.

Theresa Olloh from Nigeria set up a business while studying at University of Surrey

Of course, the ban appears to fly in the face of the UK government’s own international education strategy, which has just been reconfirmed in a policy paper on 26 May 2023 by universities & skills minister Robert Halfon MP and Lord (Jo) Johnson.

That repeated the aim to maintain 600,000 international students coming to the UK per year and increasing the value of education exports to £35 billion per year.

The original strategy launched in 2019 singled out Nigeria, together with India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, as priority countries to recruit international students.

Surge in dependants unexpected 

However, the British government hadn’t expected a surge in Nigerian, and to a lesser extent Indian, students bringing family members with them when they enrolled on taught master’s degrees, which typically last for just nine months in the UK compared to two years in many other countries.

Postgraduate students were entitled to bring dependants and the international strategy and more generous post-study work environment helped the UK regain its position as one of the most popular places to study abroad.

Of course, having so many foreign students suddenly turning up with dependants caused problems at many universities trying to find family accommodation at short notice.

Universities need earlier data

Wendy Alexander from University Of Dundee

This wasn’t helped by the Home Office “denying local authorities and universities data on dependants”, as Professor Wendy Alexander, vice-principal (international) at the University of Dundee and the Scottish government’s higher education trade and investment envoy, put it  recently.

The Home Office told me they do publish figures for dependants, adding that universities should ask foreign students if they are bringing family when they offer them a place and not wait for the Home Office to tell them.

In response, Wendy said: “The Home Office retrospectively publishes data on total number of dependant visas issued, but critically they deny institutions any access to real terms data on visas issued to dependents of a student who has a study visa for your institution. 

“So it is impossible each summer or winter to establish how many accompanying dependants are joining students at your institution.”

It seems universities find that many foreign students are deterred from saying they are bringing dependants for fear of losing their offer of a place. 

So, what can be done to avoid another slump in the current popularity among international students in studying in the UK?

Switch to undergraduate recruitment 

Well, a new report co-authored by international higher education consultants Dr Janet B Ilieva and Pat Killingley for the (independent) International Higher Education Commission (IHEC) chaired by former UK universities’ minister and Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, suggests a ‘pivot away’ from targeting masters students, whose numbers have soared recently, towards undergraduates where demand has fallen from China and European Union countries since the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

One of the benefits that would please the UK Home Secretary is that undergraduates cannot bring dependants with them. 

Sustainable strategy needed for international students

It would also help reverse the slump in first-degree entrants, whose proportion of the international student market in the UK dipped from 39% in 2017 to 26% in 2021, the period following Brexit.

Janet says: “Restrictions imposed on masters students’ dependants are likely to have a negative impact on demand (for taught master’s courses)”, so finding more undergraduates from the EU countries and China will become more important, especially as some science and technology courses are struggling to remain viable.

The UK also needs more foreign research students, with Janet saying “while first-degree entrants dipped by over 16,300 (foreign) students and PhD entrants by 1,100, over the past year, the intake of masters students increased by almost 62,000 students.”

So, a rebalance might be a good thing!

Return of #WeAreInternational 

In the meantime, the UK must somehow find a way of retaining its popularity among international students and avoid what Chris Skidmore calls “messages, intentional or not, that say that overseas students are a problem and are not welcome”.

That’s where the newly relaunched #WeAreInternational campaign comes in. 

The relaunch of #WeAreInternational is pulling together colleagues from across the sector, Anne-Marie Graham, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) told me.

“We’re working with Universities UK International (UUKi), London Higher, the British Universities’ International Liaison Association (BUILA), British Council and member organisations to develop a wealth of content that demonstrates the wider contributions of international students, beyond the economic benefits that were recently reported by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in their recent report.

“The relaunch is timely, coinciding with the announcement on changing the policy for postgraduate taught students with dependants. #WeAreInternational goes beyond the headlines, goes beyond the stereotypes, and brings together individual stories, that remind us all that international students are people, not statistics,” said Anne-Marie.

Student stories highlighted

Albanian student Dhionis Llanaj worked in ICU during COVID-19 while studying at Leeds

Stories like the ones I highlighted in my news feature for University World News including Albanian student Dhionis Llanaj, who came to the UK with his twin brother, and worked as a registered nurse on the frontline in Leeds Infirmary ICU, delivering critical care to countless patients during the COVID-19 pandemic while studying and is now an education practitioner at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

Another was Theresa Olloh from Nigeria, who set up her own e-commerce business connecting independent makers, artisans, and designers from Africa to global customers, mainly in the UK, while studying for her degree at the University of Surrey.

Then there is Anna Zvagule, who grew up in the Czech Republic, and enrolled as an undergraduate politics student at the University of Warwick in 2015, a year before the Brexit referendum, and now works as a communication officer for London Higher, the voice of universities in the UK’s capital.

She said that while it was “daunting arriving in a new country, knowing nobody”, Warwick was home to thousands of other international students who made her feel at home and many of the home students she met have become lifelong friends. 

“The UK made me feel welcome and wanted, and I have put down strong roots here. But would I choose the UK if I was 17 again today? It’s tough to say,” said Anna. 

“The sentiment towards international students is now is very different to 2015. The higher fees (for EU students)  are one thing, but the constant rhetoric in the news and on social media would not make me feel welcome or wanted. This is why we need the #WeAreInternational campaign more than ever.”

  • Main image from Study Group