Study becomes ‘most common reason to move to UK’

Visas for non-EU students at highest level since 2011, with numbers almost doubling for Indian students in one year

February 27, 2020
Source: Alamy

Study has overtaken work as “the most common reason to move to the UK” for the first time in eight years, driven by non-European Union student recruitment by universities, data suggest.

According to the latest statistics from the Home Office, released on 27 February, about 285,000 student visas were granted in 2019, the highest level since June 2011 and a 19 per cent rise on 2018.

More than half were for students from China, with the number growing by 20 per cent to about 120,000, and India, with visas granted to Indian nationals almost doubling in 2019 to about 38,000.

A 13 per cent increase in the number of visas granted to students from Saudi Arabia meant that the Middle Eastern nation overtook Hong Kong as the fourth-highest source of non-EU students in terms of visas.

The figures suggest that much of the growth in overseas interest in UK study predates last September’s announcement that the government was reopening its post-study work visa route.

Technical changes in the way the Home Office records data on study visas mean that it is still not possible to assess the precise impact of the announcement on visa applications, while figures on visa approvals are likely to reflect earlier applications to study.

The number of visas granted to Indian students has now been rising since 2016, according to the Home Office. The closure of the post-study work route in 2012 was identified as one of the main reasons why non-EU student numbers from India dipped in the first half of the 2010s.

Meanwhile, an accompanying data release from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that the growth in non-EU students coming to the UK is now one of the primary drivers of the overall migration picture.

Overall, it estimates that net migration to the UK – immigration minus emigration − was about 240,000 in the year to September 2019, a picture that had remained “broadly stable” since 2016. However, within that there had been noticeable changes in the patterns from inside and outside the EU.

Jay Lindop, director of the Centre for International Migration at the ONS, said that since 2016 – the year of the Brexit referendum – “immigration for work has decreased because of fewer EU citizens arriving for a job”.

“Meanwhile, immigration for study has gone up and is now the main reason for migration. This is driven by more non-EU students arriving, specifically Chinese and Indian,” he added.

The latest figures could shift the emphasis in the UK’s political debate on migration back towards students, especially as the country moves to a new immigration system after Brexit.

However, universities are likely to point to Home Office statistics from last year that showed that the vast majority (97 per cent) of those with student visas expiring in the year to March 2019 “were known to have departed from the UK before their visa had expired”.

The latest migration statistics do not reflect any impact on student visas of the coronavirus outbreak, which began to affect international travel and government policy only in January.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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