There has been a fall in the number of students from outside the European Union applying for visas to study at UK universities, according to new figures that will raise fears of a further drop in overseas enrolments.
In the year ended June 2016, sponsored visa applications from non-EU nationals for study at universities fell by 2 per cent to 163,338, according to Office for National Statistics figures published on 25 August.
The equivalent ONS publication at the same point last year showed a 0.2 per cent rise in sponsored visa applications for study at universities.
Numbers of non-EU first-year enrolments in England fell 1 per cent in 2014-15, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data.
A fall in visa applications for study at university will raise fears that the decline in enrolments is steepening. Figures on the proportion of applications that are successful are not made publicly available.
In the year to June 2016, the falls in sponsored visa applications to study at English language schools, and in the further education sector and at other educational institutions, were bigger than in those to study at universities (25 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively).
But there were 82,318 visas granted to short-term students, formerly known as “student visitors”, a rise of 28 per cent.
In terms of study visas granted (for all levels of education), the ONS cites Home Office figures showing that China is by far the biggest source of students coming to the UK.
China accounted for 34 per cent of study visas granted in the year to June, followed by the US (7 per cent), India (5 per cent), Malaysia (5 per cent) and Hong Kong (4 per cent).
The number of Indian students coming to British universities has plummeted in recent years, with the 2012 abolition of post-study work visas seen as a key factor.
A report in The Sun on 25 August suggested that the government is planning a further “crackdown” on the numbers of non-EU students and workers coming to the UK.
“One idea is to stop universities from marketing their courses as opportunities for students to work in Britain – and new measures to ensure students return home when their courses end,” the report said.
That may have been timed by the government to deflect attention away from the ONS figures, which showed that net migration to the UK was at 327,000 in the year to March 2016, a “not statistically significant” fall of 9,000 from the year to March 2015.
With the government no closer to meeting its aim of reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands”, universities will fear further tightening of the visa regime for non-EU student numbers.
As home secretary, Theresa May resisted calls from universities and Cabinet colleagues for students to be removed from the net migration target, which would spare universities from the impact of measures to reduce immigration.
James Pitman, managing director for Study Group’s higher education division, said: “Brexit, unfortunately, could compound the problem for the UK’s world-class higher education sector, risking, as it does, £800 million of EU research funding, top EU research talent and some 50,000 EU students enrolling every year. The rumours that Theresa May is planning a fresh crackdown on student visas are, therefore, extremely worrying.
“If we are to maintain our position as a global education powerhouse, and protect one of our most valuable exports, the government must give both EU and non-EU students a fair deal and take overseas students out of net migration targets.”
A Universities UK spokesman said: “Although the UK continues to be one of the most attractive destinations in the world for international students and staff, recruitment figures over the last few years have not done justice to our potential to increase our success in this global growth area."
He added that “the UK needs a new government strategy to encourage more international students and academics to come to the UK. This is more important than ever as the UK looks to enhance its place in the world post-Brexit”.