Louise Richardson: Reputation of UK universities at risk over policies on overseas students

UK institutions have triumphed in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016, but immigration policies and fees may threaten their status, says leading academic

September 30, 2015
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Louise Richardson said the UK should not be making it difficult for international students to obtain visas

View the full results of the World University Rankings 2015-2016

The UK will become “impoverished” if the country continues to show it is unwelcoming to international students, the upcoming vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has claimed.

Institutions in the UK have performed strongly in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Britain is home to almost one in ten of the world’s best universities, with 78 making it into this year’s expanded list of 800, and 34 of these included in the elite top 200.

London, in particular, is a stand-out performer, with four universities in the top 30 for the first time – making it arguably the world’s leading academic city.

However, writing in the THE World University Rankings 2015-16 supplement, Louise Richardson, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, who will take over the helm at Oxford in January 2016, warned that the UK will “be impoverished if students from other countries find it too costly, too difficult or too unwelcoming to travel to the UK to attend our universities”.

First year international student enrolments in the UK fell in 2012-13 for the first time in 29 years. Since then, student numbers from nations with a long history of sending students to the UK, such as India and Pakistan, have seen steep declines.

The World University Rankings 2015-16 show that British institutions in the middle of the table are being challenged head-to-head by a surge of continental European universities (see table below), which teach in English and provide a degree of comparable quality, in many cases for a tenth of the fee or less.

Professor Richardson warned that as well as the attraction of such courses for overseas students, British students were also “going overseas to get a ‘debt free’ education”. 

She added that the UK should not be raising barriers by making it difficult for international students to obtain visas or indicating that it does not welcome overseas students.

“Rather than insisting that foreigners educated here leave on graduation, we should be providing incentives for them to stay and to commit their education and energy to the British economy,” she said.

David Willetts, former UK minister for universities and science and chair of the TES Global higher education advisory board, said Professor Richardson “is right to sound a warning about the potential impact of a less welcoming visa regime – and the unfavourable impression that can start to take root overseas about our attitude to internationally mobile students and scholars”.

Recent research from the Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that international students are among the hardest working on our campuses, and are welcomed as enhancing the experience of British people who study alongside them. They also represent a vital income stream for our universities, and enrich our academic and social culture,” he said.  

“We also know that the majority go home after they study, and that they often go on to hold positions of considerable influence – a study published this week found that no fewer than 55 current world leaders spent time as students in the UK. That diaspora of British-educated graduates is vital for our country’s place in the world, and for our continued prosperity in a globalised 21st century.”

Phil Baty, editor of the THE rankings, said the country “risks damaging the competitiveness not just of our top universities, but of the UK as a whole”. 

“With student visa policies far more restrictive than our competitors around the world, and the bizarre inclusion of international students in our drive to lower net migration numbers, we have sent out a terrible message to the brightest and most ambitious students globally, suggesting we’re closed for business,” he said.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016: Some head-to-head comparisons between UK and European universities



Student-staff ratio

% international students

Income per student* GBP

Annual tuition fee (UK undergraduate) GBP

Imperial College London






ETH Zurich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich






King’s College London






LMU Munich





113 (student services)

University of Manchester






University of Amsterdam





Liberal arts & sciences: 3,008.67

Social sciences: 2,880.23

Other: 1,440.12

University of Bristol






Leiden University






Durham University






Erasmus University Rotterdam






*converted from local currency on 18 September 2015


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Reader's comments (1)

A more welcoming approach not only to the full-time but also to the part-time international students, who may also study at a distance most of the time, please. These people also study in the UK, while not always necessarily residing there continuously. However, studying towards the same academic degrees as those studying full-time, and pouring the same money into the system, I think they also deserve more flexibility in terms of the visa regulations and post-study work experience options. Regards,

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