About half of UK universities have lost international student numbers since the Conservatives entered power in 2010, with the losses across those institutions totalling 43,000 students and focused in “middle and lower-ranked universities”.
Analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency figures shows how different types of university have been affected by Home Office restrictions on overseas student visas introduced since 2010, as the Tories pursued a goal to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”.
Institutions including the University of East London, Teesside University and Staffordshire University have seen dramatic falls of more than 50 per cent, when their 2015-16 overseas postgraduate and undergraduate numbers are compared with those from 2010-11.
And 20 out of 24 members of the Russell Group, which represents research-intensive universities, have increased their numbers.
Overall, 73 out of 155 institutions with figures across the period saw their non-European Union student numbers fall, with those institutions having a combined decline of 43,200 students.
As the Home Office develops plans to pursue a “differentiated” approach on student visas – tailoring the visa regime to an institution’s “quality” – such a policy could already have taken effect.
James Pitman, managing director of higher education in the UK and Europe for Study Group, which provides pathway programmes for overseas students at a number of British universities, analysed Hesa figures on non-EU enrolments across different institutions.
Times Higher Education’s own analysis produces figures on the top 10 biggest fallers and risers by the percentage change in their non-EU student numbers between 2010 and 2015.
Mr Pitman said: “For the first time, we can see there’s been a really serious differential impact on different levels of institution, let’s say, because there’s a very strong correlation between ranking/profile [of a university] and the impact of what I would say are the government’s restrictions on international students.”
Income from overseas students, whose fees are not capped, is vital for the financial sustainability of UK universities.
Overseas students are also widely regarded as bringing benefits to the UK’s regional economies, via spending on accommodation, food and leisure. Some universities seeing big falls are in areas that voted for Brexit, which would otherwise be seen as priorities for economic development by the government.
Mr Pitman said that falls at such institutions were “almost the worst possible outcome, because those are precisely the universities that are in areas where jobs are desperately needed”.
According to the Hesa figures, total non-EU student numbers across the UK fell to 310,570 in 2015-16, down from 312,010 the previous year, after previous decades of continual growth.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said that the sector-level flatlining was “masking a massive [negative] impact over a broad range of middle and lower-ranking universities. And what it’s doing to their [financial] viability and their international links and their regional economies is a story that’s not been told.”
London Metropolitan University, which saw the biggest fall of any institution at 87 per cent, had its visa licence revoked by the Home Office in 2012, before it was reinstated seven months later.
Universities must ensure that no more than 10 per cent of their prospective students applying for visas receive a refusal, or the institution will lose its Tier 4 sponsor licence.
Mr Scott suggested that with sponsor licences on the line, some universities “have had to be so cautious about which students they issue offers to that they self-policed themselves into recession”.
He also said that on a recent visit to India, agents who recruit students for UK universities had told him that the chances of an applicant to a Russell Group university being called in for a face-to-face credibility interview by the Home Office were “minimal”, while it was much higher for some modern universities.
“The word on the street was that for certain universities, they knew that at least 30 per cent of their students would be summoned to a face-to-face interview,” said Mr Scott.
A UEL spokesman said that its fall in numbers of 80 per cent came after the abolition of post-study work visas in 2012, meaning that it “saw a significant drop in 2013-14 of international students mainly due to a significantly smaller intake from…key markets” such as India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
The spokesman also said that the Home Office has been “tightening up issuing visas to students from high-risk countries”, with UEL “repositioning itself in regions such as North America and East Asia where historically it has not recruited many students”.
A London Met spokesman said: “While the Home Office now regularly acknowledges that we have some of the most rigorous compliance practices in the UK, we have found it extremely difficult to ‘climb back’ due to the increased refusal rates of applicants in our historic recruitment markets.
“As a consequence, we have reconfigured our business model and are now one of the few universities in the sector virtually without reliance on international students.”
A Home Office spokesman said that the government wanted to attracted the “brightest and best” students to Britain.
“It is totally incorrect to say that we tacitly differentiate between different types of university,” he said. “All student visa applications are considered against the immigration rules and in line with published policy.”