August 2013 issue

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UK in demand

Despite detrimental student visa changes for non-EU students studying in higher education in the UK, tertiary numbers increased between 2010/11 and 2011/12. Bethan Norris takes a look at the bigger picture.

According to figures collated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in the UK, the number of international students studying in UK higher education institutions in the 2011/12 academic year increased by 1.6 per cent. This is despite stringent visa changes announced in 2011 and implemented in 2012 that abolished post-study work rights for non-EU students and introduced visa interviews for some nationalities (see STM, May 2011, page 6).

However, this overall increase can mostly be attributed to the massive growth of Chinese student numbers by 16.9 per cent during this period, making this nationality by far the most populous among international students in UK higher education. Other key nationalities suffered a decline in 2011/12, most likely as a result of the visa changes, with Indian students down by 23.5 per cent, Saudi Arabian students down by four per cent and Pakistani students down by 13.4 per cent.

Claire Prendergast, Senior International Officer at the University of Sheffield, says that their largest international student nationalities of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Nigerian and Hong Kong have remained the same in the last few years. However, she adds, “The government policy on immigration has impacted negatively, as it has created the perception that the UK visa system is difficult. The withdrawal of the post-study work scheme has had a particularly strong impact.”

Helen Moore, International Officer at Buckinghamshire New University, agrees that the visa changes have had a negative effect on international students’ perception of the UK as a study destination, although she adds that numbers at their university have stayed the same over the last year. “The majority of our students come from the Philippines, closely followed by India and Pakistan,” she says. “The [visa restrictions] have had a negative impact. The lack of post-study work rights is the biggest issue and students being interviewed by UKBA is also a deterrent.”

While there is no doubt that many international students previously came to the UK with a view to finding work after their course and have gone to study in other destinations since the visa changes were introduced, it does seem that for large numbers of international students, the UK is as popular as ever. Prendergast says, “There are many reasons why international students want to study in the UK – its reputation for quality is known throughout the world and is important when looking for a job afterwards. A UK education also develops creativity and distinctive thinking in its students. The UK is also quite a safe and multicultural environment in which to study, which is a big factor for many international students.”

Non-EU markets currently performing particularly well for UK higher education providers include China, Hong Kong (up by 8.6 per cent), US (up by five per cent), Malaysia (up by 4.6 per cent) and Thailand (up by 4.9 per cent). Prendergast also notes that some governments have been investing in encouraging their students to study overseas and this has had a positive impact. “For example, Iraq, [which is investing in] scholarship programmes aimed at building capacity in their universities by sponsoring students for postgraduate study and PhD research,” she says.

Despite the restriction on post-study work rights for non-EU students, the most popular courses in the UK with international students are those likely to appeal to future employers. “Our most popular courses are the MBA, nursing-related courses and business management,” says Moore. While Prendergast adds, “We are developing a number of courses in health-related areas, as there is growing demand for professionals in this field, taking into account ageing populations and increased investment in health, as living standards across the world improve.”

Alexandra Cole from the University of East Anglia says that courses related to the fields of business, media, communications and economics are attractive to overseas students. “The University of East Anglia is developing a number of short accredited courses that can be taken over the summer in these areas, based upon international feedback and demand,” she says.

Cole also relates that the university works hard to market their courses overseas to students and agents. “[We have a] significant presence in over 30 target countries involving an extensive travel programme attending fairs, schools and universities and managing a large education agency network,” she says.

Percentage change in top international student nationalities studying at UK HE institutions between 2010/11 and 2011/12 Top nationalities in Canada by student weeks – according to schools, 2012
Chinese 16.9%
Indian -23.5%
Nigerian 0.2%
US 5%
German -1.7%
Irish -10.5%
Malaysian 4.6%
French -3.7%
Greek 1.4%
Hong Kong 8.6%

Total number of international students: 435,235

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency
Chinese (78,715)18.1%
Indian (29,900) 6.9% Nigerian (17,620) 4%
American (16,335) 3.8%
German (15,985) 3.7%
Irish (15,075) 3.5%
Malaysian (14,545) 3.3%
Greek (11,790) 2.7%
French (12,835) 2.6%
Hong Kong (11,335) 2.6%
Other (15,075) 48.8%
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