Migration and the addiction of British universities to recruiting foreign students are twin issues rising up the political agenda for the Tories as the United Kingdom enters what is almost certain to be a General Election year.

Labour and the higher education sector might want to talk about the need for a sustainable university funding system or how to support students whose education has been severely disrupted by the Covid19 pandemic.

But the Conservatives sense they are on to something big by banging on about cutting immigration by hundreds of thousands before the election. And cutting overseas students is the quickest and easiest way to do just that!

Never-mind that net migration to Britain – the difference between the number of people moving into the UK (immigrants) and the number of people leaving it (emigrants) – soared to 745,000 in 2022 after averaging approximately 250,000 in the decade before 2019. 

Net migration soared after Brexit

So, despite all the talk about taking back control of our borders in the referendum about leaving the European Union, immigration numbers rose to the highest figure ever recorded after Brexit and despite a previous Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, pledging to cut net migration to tens of thousands. 

Former Tory Prime Minister Theresa May

Of course it was another Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who deliberately left the door open to the rest of the world during the pandemic as Britain welcomed hundreds of thousands of foreign students who might have gone elsewhere to study if rival destinations, like Australia, hadn’t shut out foreigners during the height of Covid.

The arrival of more foreign students paying two or three as much as UK students in tuition fees was anyway part of the Government’s International Education Strategy, or IES, and provided an easy way to subsidise teaching home students and research activities.

Government wanted more foreign students

Originally announced by the then Conservative Universities Minister Chris Skidmore in 2019, it had the goal of gradually growing international students from 470,000 to around 600,000 by 2030.

The pandemic turbo-charged numbers coming to Britain to study and by the end of the first year of Covid (2020-21) the 2030 target was hit with 605,000 foreign students enrolling in the UK higher education institutions (HEIs). 

Numbers just went on rising as the government implemented stage two of its cunning plan to gain a bigger share of the lucrative international student market by relaxing the post study work rules through what the government called its Graduate Route for foreign students and numbers reached a staggering 679,970 in 2021/22. 

Graduate Route

The Graduate Route enabled international students to remain in the UK for up to two years if they had completed an undergraduate or Master’s degree, and up to three years for doctoral degrees.

There is no restriction on the type of work that they could do. However, migrants cannot claim benefits and time on the graduate visa does not count toward settlement in the UK.

Despite those caveats, international student numbers coming to the UK surged over the last two years, especially from Nigeria and India.

Most are coming for one-year (taught) Master’s degrees – the quickest and easiest route to get on the Graduate Route for work.

And most, but not all, have enrolled at lower ranked higher education institutions which tend to accept students with lower grades and charge lower tuition fees than more selective universities.

Robert Jenrick upset 

This seems to have really upset former Conservative immigration minister Robert Jenrick (pictured, right) who told The Sun newspaper for their January 2024 story headlined Uni Migrant Racket: “It’s high time our bloated higher education sector weaned itself off their addiction to foreign students and focused on academic performance.

“The statistics confirm what we have long known — more and more foreign students are coming to less selective universities, to do Mickey Mouse degrees and then perform low-wage roles.

Ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick

“These universities aren’t pursuing the top global talent. They are marketing their courses overseas as a back door to life in the UK.”

What’s got him and other Tory right-wingers in a lather were figures like the University of Hertfordshire increasing the number of their international students by 8,800 between 2018/1 and 2021, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). That’s an amazing 246% increase.

Ulster University piled on 5,400 more foreign students in the same period, a 403% increase, while Teesside University saw a 322% increase in overseas students with an additional 4,400 overseas students.

Dependants

Since 2012, postgraduate students, including taught Masters students who usually complete their course within nine months in England, could also bring their dependants on student visas.

But this was stopped by the government from January 2024 for all except postgraduate research students, such as doctoral students, with the government still hoping international research students continue coming to Britain to support its aim of becoming a science superpower.

Until the Graduate Route few international students brought dependants with them as they tended to be younger and most Chinese students anyway planned to return home after graduation.

Nigerian and Indian students

However, many Nigerian and Indian students coming for one year Master’s degrees are older and have dependants and it was a great bonus to bring family, especially if they intended to work for a couple of years in the UK after graduating to repay loans for tuition fees and maybe start a new life in Britain.

Dependants coming with international students accounted for 148,000 visas in 2022, or 24% of all student visas, and while the majority are adults, a substantial number are children and need schooling in the UK, according to data from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

The MAC’s informative 2023 annual report shows that the number of dependants coming from India and Nigeria was just 1,500 in 2015, but that by 2022 they numbered over 100,000 and accounted for 73% of dependants coming with international students to the UK with 23% of Indian nationals and 54% of Nigerian nationals on student visas being dependants in 2022. 

Interestingly, there has been no change for Chinese nationals, with dependants continuing to account for less than 1% of student visas, according to the MAC report.

Too much for Suella

Former Tory Home Secretary Suella Braverman

This was all too much for many right-wing Conservative MPs, including the then Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who after an internal cabinet battle managed to drive through the change of policy which meant, from January 2024, only postgraduate research students can now bring dependants. 

The government also announced shortly before Christmas 2023 that it was asking the MAC to review the graduate route, which could spell trouble for universities relying on all those Master’s students to subsidise teaching UK students (whose fees have been frozen at £9,250-a-year for over a decade).

So here we are with a Conservative government blaming universities for doing too well with its own international education strategy, which made it a priority to get more students from India and Nigeria as well as from Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. And a regulator – the Office for Students – that clearly wanted to wean UK universities off over-reliance on Chinese students in case things deteriorated even further between the UK and China politically. 

MAC concerns over pre-work study route

The Conservative Government can’t say it wasn’t warned about what would probably happen before the Graduate Route was introduced.  A year before it was announced the Migration Advisory Committee expressed “concerns that it would lead to an increase in low-wage migration and universities marketing themselves on post-study employment potential rather than educational quality”. 

As the MAC report put it: “If students had unrestricted rights to work in the UK for two years after graduation there would potentially be demand for degrees (especially short Master’s degrees) based not just on the value of the qualification and the opportunity to obtain a graduate level job and settle in the UK, but for the temporary right to work in the UK that studying brings. 

“A post-study work regime could become a pre-work study regime. It is important that demand for courses in the UK is built around the quality of the education offered and a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the UK as a skilled worker.”

Dr Diana Beech, CEO of the London Higher lobby group, says: “Any moves to restrict or abolish the Post-Study Work Visa now will be the final nail in the coffin for the illusion of ‘Global Britain’, with the UK already being seen as unwelcoming to international students following a swathe of recent regressive policy changes.”

But Dr Beech, who was once a policy adviser to Conservative universities ministers, told Times Higher Education that while the sector was “understandably nervous” about the MAC review, it should be seen “through a positive lens, allowing us to input constructively…and shape the terms of the review”, offering the chance to “positively adjust the route to help drive graduates towards areas of skills shortages”.

With universities like Coventry warning they are considering cuts of around £95 million over the next two years and blaming UK government rhetoric for “making it harder to recruit international students” against more welcoming countries like Australia and Canada, Britain’s higher education sector will be trying to make sure MAC’s Graduate Route review doesn’t turn into another excuse for the Conservative Government to beat up universities for recruiting more overseas students whose higher tuition fees are currently keeping them afloat.

See my earlier blogs here:

Many wondering if the UK really wants international students

Why blame students for affordable housing crisis 

 and

International students and graduates: myths and reality | Insights from Universities UK International, 18 January 2024

Pictures: HM Government’s International Education Strategy 2019 and UK Parliament