Plans by Conservative ministers to limit international students’ use of the NHS could further deter overseas applicants, the sector has warned.
The move coincides with an analysis published this week, which concludes that overseas students are less of a drain on health and other public resources than the average citizen.
Following the Conservative Party’s third-place finish behind the UK Independence Party in the Eastleigh by-election on 28 February, The Sunday Times reported that immigrants may have to be resident in the UK for up to a year before they are able to access hospital care, excluding emergency and antenatal services.
In a House of Commons debate on 26 February, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, told Parliament that “we have to ask whether it is appropriate for us to be giving free healthcare to short-term visitors, to students, to people on temporary visas”.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that the NHS “is not there to serve the health needs of the world and we will not tolerate abuse of the system”.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said that if access were limited, it would be “yet one more sign that the UK is less welcoming” to international students after the visa system was toughened up and the automatic right to work in the country for two years post-graduation was ended.
Some overseas students did have private health cover as part of wider insurance policies but they were “possibly the minority”, he added.
Paul White, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at the University of Sheffield, said that charging international students for health services would be “complex to administer and unlikely to be cost- effective”.
“The message that the introduction of such charging would convey would be very negative,” he added.
The number of student visas issued in the year to the end of December 2012 fell by a fifth compared with the previous year, the Office for National Statistics revealed on 28 February.
However, the number of visa applications to universities was up 3 per cent.
The Economic Costs and Benefits of International Students, a study by global forecaster Oxford Economics for the University of Sheffield, calculates that overseas students generated a net economic benefit to the city of £120.3 million, or around £218 per resident, in 2012-13.
They consume £6,905 of public services a year (a figure the study says is likely to be overestimated) compared with £8,388 for an average citizen in the area, says the report, which was launched on 4 March.
International students are less of a burden on services because they are young and therefore use the NHS far less than older people, thus costing less than two-thirds the amount of the average user, the analysis states.
They are also not allowed to access the majority of state benefits, such as child benefit, severe disablement allowance and council tax benefit, the report adds.