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Immigration, international students, and the UK

25 May 2023

Daniel Rathbone

Deputy Executive Director

Immigration has been back in the news this week with the ONS releasing the latest statistics showing net migration at its highest level and a Government announcement about restrictions on international students bringing dependents to the UK.

International students make a huge contribution to the UK, both economically and culturally. Recent research by Universities UK shows that they boost the UK economy by £41.9 billion. Over the past few years the Higher Education sector has become one of the UK’s most successful exports. Most students leave the UK once they have completed their studies, which means it also greatly expands the UK’s soft power as the majority go back to their home country having had a great experience in the UK. The UK Government has shown its commitment to this through the International Education Strategy, seeking to grow UK exports in this area. International students have also become an important source of funding for Universities, with the income they receive from student fees often used to cross-subsidise domestic students and research.

This week the Home Office announced restrictions on the ability of international students studying some courses to bring dependents with them to the UK. In recent years there has been a large increase in the number of students bringing dependents with them, and this has led to local challenges in some areas (for example in schooling provision). However, in addressing these challenges the UK Government needs to avoid knee-jerk reactions and make sure that any policy changes are not considered in isolation. Any change that could impact on international student numbers could also affect universities’ ability to fund research by reducing available income. Therefore, the impact on other areas of the university and research eco-system must be considered when changes are made.

The Government has confirmed it is still committed to its aims set out in the International Education Strategy and the post-study work visa, which is welcome. It has also stated its willingness to work with Universities on any changes. However it remains to be seen what the impact of the announcement will be, particularly as some of the changes are contingent on the outcome of a review. Further, the Government should ensure it looks at the impact in the round on Universities, and the impact on particular groups of students – any restrictions on dependents is likely to have a disproportionate impact on women for example. 

It is vital that the big picture of the economic benefits of UK higher education and the sustainability of research funding aren’t forgotten in the pursuit of short term reductions in net migration.

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