UUK shows Britain losing ground in foreign enrolments

Nicola Dandridge says mixed messages on immigration aid competitor nations’ university sectors

May 2, 2013

New enrolments have remained virtually flat this year, our survey shows. We are starting to head in the wrong direction, especially in the context of rising international student numbers globally

Australia is grateful to the UK for its immigration policy, a former education minister for the state of Victoria recently declared. In Phil Honeywood’s eyes, our approach to immigration has done no end of good to Australia’s drive to recruit more international students.

Whether or not this perception of the UK’s immigration system is justified, there can be no doubt that the message we have been projecting about our attitude towards international students has been at best unclear and at worst unwelcoming.

Of late, there have been many claims and counterclaims about the precise impact of the government’s immigration policy on the number of international students coming to the UK. But until now this debate has been dogged by a lack of up-to-date and reliable data. This has allowed for some complacency about the situation with many pointing to Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data that look only at numbers applying - not actually enrolling - and only at undergraduate- level study.

In order to address this information gap, this week Universities UK has released the results of a survey of trends in international student recruitment. With responses received from 116 institutions across the UK, these data provide the most comprehensive overview of the situation available.

The results suggest that new enrolments - the clearest indicator of future numbers - have remained virtually flat this year: at the institutions responding to our survey, overall student numbers (including students who have been in the UK for several years) have increased by about 3 per cent. This suggests that we are starting to head in the wrong direction, especially in the context of rising international student numbers globally. A good point of comparison would be the US, where international student numbers increased by 5.7 per cent in 2011-12.

We have also seen dramatic falls in enrolments from specific countries, particularly India - from where new entrants fell by more than 2,300, according to the survey’s respondents.This is in addition to the 32 per cent decline in the number of first-year Indian students in the previous year. And there was a 3.7 per cent drop in students enrolled in taught postgraduate degrees in 2011-12. Our data suggest that this is the biggest cause for concern: declining demand has significant implications for course provision, especially as non-EU students represent 45 per cent of all full-time postgraduate students in the UK.

Overall the picture is mixed, but the results suggest that recent recruitment patterns do not do justice either to the outstanding quality of our universities or to the sector’s potential to expand. With higher education a serious export success story, bringing in about £8 billion each year to the UK economy and projected to have the capacity to increase to £17 billion per year by 2025, this is a missed opportunity.

The UK continues to suffer from a muddled international message, owing in large part to the complexity of the politics surrounding immigration. The prime minister did address this during a recent visit to India. He made it clear to prospective international students that genuine applicants are welcome, that there is no cap on numbers, that there are opportunities to work for a period during and after study, and that the UK wants and values international students. But, at the same time, the government is still trying to tell domestic voters that it is “clamping down”. The result is that genuine international students have been made to feel like bogus ones. The government is going to have to work harder to cut through the confusion.

The findings of this survey provide clear evidence of the need for more joined-up thinking and better messaging. Our competitors are certainly clear about this. Last year, Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, said he wanted to see more international students coming to Canada and staying on afterwards, stating that “these are the kind of bright young people we are trying to recruit”. It comes as no surprise, then, that Canada’s perceived attractiveness as a study destination has rocketed in the past four years.

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