A new year always seems a good time to make predictions, but you don’t need a crystal ball to see that migration and a crisis in affordable housing are going to be two issues dominating the agenda for policymakers and higher education experts in 2023.

Alarm bells were ringing as 2022 drew to a close about student housing shortages reaching levels not seen for a generation, with The Guardian reporting on 27 December an estimated shortfall of a student beds in the UK of 207,000.

A few days earlier, higher education think-tanker Jim Dickinson used a pre-Christmas blog on the WonkHE website to warn that nearly a quarter of the 600,000 students rent from the UK private housing sector where almost a quarter of properties don’t meet the government’s definition of a “decent home”.

I heard the same story in Ireland while attending an International Association of Universities (IAU) conference a few months back at University College Dublin.

The lack adequate housing, combined with rapidly rising rents as demand outstrips supply, is hitting all sections of society particularly those struggling with the cost of living crisis.

Housing crisis in Ireland, too

A young man I met on a bus who told me where to get a decent Irish stew and a pint of Guinness without paying exorbitant Temple Bar prices (O’Neills in Suffolk Street, near Trinity College Dublin, by the way) said he couldn’t wait to leave Dublin as he couldn’t afford to live there anymore. 

At least the Irish government appears to recognise the problem, with the Pie News reporting on 14 December that government funds would be used to deliver 667 new beds as a short-term measure, via building projects in areas where planning permission has already been granted but development has been stalled by increasing construction costs. 

The new student homes will relieve some of the pressure at the University of Limerick, Maynooth University and University of Galway with further work on projects ongoing with Dublin City University and University College Dublin.

Cold wind in Amsterdam

Across the North Sea, DutchNews.nl reported over the summer that the University of Amsterdam had emailed international students telling them not to come to the capital if they have not found a place to live by August 15.

The news site reported almost 5,000 international students had signed up for a room, via the university’s accommodation service and this was double the spaces available for first years from abroad. 

The university’s accommodation service “strongly advised” students without accommodation not to travel to Amsterdam, adding: “Because we cannot assist you, we will cancel your housing application.”

The same Dutch news site reported on 2 December that members of parliament in the Netherlands voted in favour of a motion calling on the government to stop universities and other higher education institutions “from actively recruiting students abroad”.

MPs were quoted saying the surge in student numbers, fuelled by a rise in international students, is increasing pressure on student housing capacity and leading to overfull lecture theatres and hoped “a ban on advertising and attending recruitment fairs abroad will depress the flow”. 

Will the UK cut foreign students?

Back in the UK, the lack of adequate student housing threatens to get drawn into a similar wrangle by popularist politicians such as Conservative Home Secretary Suella Braverman who upset the higher education establishment by suggesting at a Tory party conference fringe meeting that the number of foreign students coming to the UK should be cut in a bid to reduce immigration, saying: “We have got to look at some of the courses that people are doing in this country, some of the institutions, they are not always very good quality.”

Fuel was added to the flames, via a press briefing by the prime minister Rishi Sunak’s’ spokesperson, after the net migration figures came out. These showed immigration to the UK reached an estimated 1.1 million in the year to June 2022, with 560,000 people emigrating from the UK – leaving net migration at a record of 504,000.

The briefing, as I reported for University World News in a piece headlined ‘Does the UK want more or fewer international students?, said the PM is “fully committed to getting migration down” and suggested that cutting the rising number of dependants international students bring with them could be an easy way to cut immigration figures.

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford was quick to point out that the unusually high levels of net migration came from a unique set of circumstances, following the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and shouldn’t be seen as representing a “new normal”.

Image from University World News

However, their figures did show that the UK issued 465,000 sponsored study visas to non-EU citizens in the year ending June 2022.

Anti-immigration lobby in a lather

That was enough to send some anti-immigration lobbyists into a right lather, with the Migration Watch think tank among those warning that ‘housing, services and transport’ face serious pressure because of the soaring number of student visa grants and saying it was ‘absurd’ that the UK had hit its 600,000 overseas students target nearly a decade early, suggesting the country wasn’t prepared for such an influx.

To those welcoming the swift growth in overseas students following the return of more liberal post-study work rights in the UK, I’d suggest they avoid stupid ‘own-goals’ which Migration Watch have been quick to seize on. Chief among these is the claim, sadly too often repeated by people who should know better, that 97% of overseas students leave the UK before their visas expire.

That’s clearly not backed up by recent data, with Oxford University’s Migration Observatory suggesting that past trends suggest between 80% and 90% are expected to leave the UK, but that might be in the decade after graduating.

International graduates fill skills gaps

Anyway, what’s wrong with students coming to the UK to be educated and then wanting to stay to fill the serious skills gaps we face, particularly after Brexit sent home so many key workers.

I had several hospital appointments over the Christmas period and was treated a doctor from India and a young medical graduate from St Andrews who hailed from Taiwan. Only one of the specialists was UK-born. Our NHS needs more, not less, health professionals from abroad.

And we shouldn’t allow politicians and others to blame international students for the housing crisis that has been ‘building up’ since Tory icon Margaret Thatcher flogged off council housing several decades ago and various governments failed to invest in affordable housing.

As for the latest concern over dependants, it appears they made up 36% of the recent increase in student visas, but that’s not so surprising as the Conservative government’s own international education strategy made Nigeria and India two of its five priority countries to recruit students from. 

Students from Nigeria and India tend to older than the Chinese market which the UK universities previously relied on and are more likely want to come for a postgraduate qualification – and yes, eventual re-settlement if they can find suitable work.

So, be prepared as we enter 2023 for more blame games involving foreign students for troubles that have been building up for years and remember that the UK charges much higher tuition fees to international students who help to subsidise lower fees for Brits and also help fund valuable research work.

Combat growing xenophobia 

Meghann Ormond, an associate professor in cultural geography from Utrecht in the Netherlands, summed up things perfectly in a post on LinkedIn after Christmas, saying international students are not to blame for higher workloads among lecturers and problems with housing.

As a ‘great believer in the transformative potential of travel’, she warned against “growing xenophobia in this place I call home”.

She was talking about the Netherlands, but unless we speak out we could find more British politicians singing the same tune – instead of fixing problems with insufficient accommodation and inadequate investment in higher education.

  • Main image from Dutch Review: 5 things to know about the Dutch student housing crisis

Also see

Universities cause homelessness, ‘have duty to tackle it’, Nic Mitchell, University World News, 22 July 2022