Doubts remain on UK overseas recruitment despite ‘positive’ signs

Students have been arriving from key markets such as China and India, but flexible start dates mean final numbers are a long way from certain

October 12, 2020
Chinese passengers wear face masks as the push their luggage after arriving from a flight at Terminal 5 of London Heathrow Airport
Source: Getty

Doubts remain about the eventual number of international students who will start courses in the UK this year despite some signs that demand has held up better than had been expected a few months ago.

The latest figures from the Home Office show the stark scenario that universities faced at the height of the spring coronavirus lockdown, with a 100 per cent fall in the number of Tier 4 visas issued in the three months to the end of June.

China, where Covid-19 restrictions were brought in earlier, was particularly badly affected, with student visa approvals down 19 per cent year-on-year, according to the data, reflecting a 44 per cent fall from January to March and a 100 per cent drop from April to June.

However, universities are hopeful that the dramatic drops in course starters suggested by such figures will not come to pass after the easing of Covid restrictions in the UK over the summer, a period when the bulk of study visas are usually issued.

Dedicated flights for Chinese students, including one arranged by Queen’s University Belfast and services into Manchester involving several institutions in the north of England, Wales and the south-west, have also been landing in the past few weeks.

Meanwhile, travel from the UK’s other major market for international recruitment – India – is thought to have become easier, with scheduled routes reopening and some airlines also laying on services specifically for students.

India could be key to the UK avoiding a catastrophic downturn in international numbers: the June figures showed that the number of Tier 4 visas issued to Indian nationals more than doubled year-on-year despite a downturn from April to June.

Figures from the admissions service Ucas on undergraduates have also given grounds for optimism. They show the number of students from outside the European Union being accepted on to courses by mid-September up almost 10 per cent.

However, this does not reflect the final take-up of places and gives no indication about the number of postgraduates, in many ways the more important level for international recruitment in the UK.

It is also thought that requirements for tuition fee deposits – which give institutions more certainty that students will commit to a course – have been waived by some universities, meaning final numbers may be unclear until students are fully enrolled.

Jamie Arrowsmith, assistant director, policy, at Universities UK International, said that “relative to where we might have been”, the international recruitment picture was looking “reasonably positive”.

However, he warned, the sector was a long way from knowing final numbers because a large volume of international student applications was still in the pipeline and universities were offering a high degree of flexibility to students to begin courses remotely and travel to the UK later. Staggered and January start dates were also being more offered more widely.

“Even at this stage, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty,” Mr Arrowsmith said. “The flexibility and later start dates being offered by universities give students who may be struggling to arrive in the UK right now more options. But it means that enrolment numbers are less clear at this stage than they would be in other years.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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