The number of international students at English universities has dropped for the first time in nearly three decades following increases in tuition fees and stricter visa rules, according to a new report.
A study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which distributes government finance to universities, has found that enrolments by overseas students dropped by just under 4,600 in 2013, marking the end of a continued upwards trajectory.
One of the most striking findings is a 25 per cent decrease in the number of full-time EU undergraduates, which higher education experts said was the result of annual tuition fees rising from £3,000 to £9,000 in 2012. Under EU rules, students from member states must pay the same fees as their UK peers, but are not always entitled to the same loan arrangements.
However, international undergraduate numbers from non-EU countries showed a 3 per cent rise. This was partly due to changes in the Hong Kong education system resulting in the graduation of a double cohort, who could not all be accommodated in local higher education institutions. The number of undergraduates coming from Brazil also doubled from 2010 to 2013.
The report also revealed that the number of postgraduate students joining English universities from India and Pakistan dropped significantly, by 51 per cent in the former and 49 per cent in the latter. But this does not make a significant dent in the overall postgraduate figures – which show a 1 per cent decline in international postgraduate students in English universities between 2010 and 2011 – because the declines from the Indian subcontinent are partially offset by rises in the numbers from China, which have increased 44 per cent.
University vice-chancellors have long argued that new restrictions in student visas, such as the closure of the route that previously allowed overseas students to stay and work in the UK for two years after the end of their degrees, have deterred some of the brightest from coming to Britain.
The report authors warn that although the number of international students enrolling on undergraduate courses is still rising, the wider picture is more worrying, especially given the declines in postgraduate numbers.
“There is a risk that future growth will not materialise at the level forecast and any reduction could have a major impact on institutions’ financial positions,” the report reads.
Professor Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of HEFCE, said that students enriched universities and colleges “academically, culturally, and through their contribution to the economy”.
She added: “Supporting high-quality international education is a crucial part of ensuring that the UK continues to engage with, and benefit from, the increasingly interconnected world.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU union, urged ministers to do more to encourage foreign students given the uncertainties over university funding.
“Ministers need to recognise that attempts to sound tough on immigration at home are also reported elsewhere and it is not surprising if students consider studying in the countries that make an effort to welcome them,” Ms Hunt said.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which oversees universities, said there was “no cap” on the number of legitimate students allowed to study in the UK.
Liam Byrne, shadow universities minister, said the HEFCEt research marked the decline of higher education as a “great British export”.
“[Foreign] students are horrified at the rhetoric of David Cameron and his ministers,” Mr Byrne said. “To them the message is quite clear: they are not welcome here.”
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