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British enrolment figures: looking beyond the headlines

There is much debate within British universities these days about numbers, specifically as they relate to the health of the higher education sector in the UK. One number in particular can fairly be said to have started the trend:

100,000: Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to bring net migration to under 100,000 by the time of the next general election in May 2015.

Mr Cameron’s pledge has ushered in a ream of new visa regulations that many say are adversely affecting international students’ ability to study in the UK. Recent British government statistics show a 1% increase in the number of applications for study visas for university, which British Home Secretary Theresa May defends as an increase.

However, others consider it to be a sure sign of a weakening in the UK’s market share of international students given the strength of other destinations such as Canada and the US, and particularly in view of the overall growth in the global education market.

Former foreign secretary David Miliband, who is currently visiting many UK universities as part of a political campaign, reported to the Times Higher Education that:

“Every university I visit tells me that Britain is handing students over to American, Australian, even German universities at a cost to our own society as well as our own educational institutions.”

Miliband asserts that the current UK immigration policy is causing the country to miss out on “billions of pounds” of potential revenue from international students.

Immigration reform

On top of existing visa restrictions already in place, Ms May announced a further hurdle for international students last month: she almost doubled the number of students who will be required to engage in face-to-face interviews – as opposed to relying only on their paper applications – as part of their efforts to study in the UK. Ms May asserted:

“Our reforms to economic migration have struck a balance, and they send a clear message: if you have skills we need, and a company is willing to give you a job, come to Britain. If you have an investment to make, do it in Britain. And if you have a great business idea, bring it to Britain.”

But critics disagree that this is the main message being sent out. The general secretary of the largest trade union and professional association for academics working in further and higher education in the UK, UCU (University and College Union), Sally Hunt, commented:

“The UK has long been one of the most popular destinations for foreign students because of our proud international reputation for excellence. However, we cannot rest on our laurels as competition from other countries increases…. in a drive to seem tough on immigration, we risk pushing the best and brightest brains from around the world to universities in our competitor countries.”

Also, University World News reports that the modest 1% increase in student visa applications “came before the full impact of the UK Border Agency’s late August decision to revoke London Metropolitan University’s ‘highly trusted status’, which had enabled it to recruit international students through the Tier 4 visa route, by which almost all international students outside the European Union apply to UK universities.”

The revocation, further issues regarding the Tier 4 visa route, and a new report that the number of students in England applying to university has fallen by 10% may challenge the solvency of some UK institutions.

According to University World News, The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) says that although “the financial outturn for 2011-12 looks manageable for the vast majority of institutions,” observers must keep in mind that:

“In an increasingly competitive environment and with reductions in public capital funding, some institutions will need to increase surpluses even beyond those currently achieved to finance future capital investment and maintain their long-term sustainability.”

Impact felt by other education sectors

While it is as yet unclear whether the university sector in the UK will suffer from tough national immigration policies – British universities’ still-strong and very established reputation for excellence may yet offset any lasting damage – other parts of the education sector are undoubtably hurting from them.

A recent post on the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) blog reports:

“More worrying is what is going in other sectors. Even independent schools – which the government has said are not a concern in immigration terms – are showing a 17% fall. This is unsurprising given the link between choosing a UK school and intention to progress to university – a clear sign of the damage to pathways through the education sector …. The really catastrophic evidence comes in the impact on language schools and the FE sector. Applications for Tier 4 visas for language schools have fallen 76%, from 15,930 to a mere 3,748 in the year ending September 2012.”

The 2012 ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer (based on interviews with 1023 agents from 107 nationalities) found that the UK had remained stable in its attractiveness as a study destination since 2011.

At the same time, so did the US. And Canada – home to increasingly welcoming work and immigration programmes for students – jumped five percentage points to land on par with the UK as the second-most attractive destination for international students.

Can the UK’s higher education sector retain its market share despite its government’s goals to reduce immigration by whatever means available?

Given all of the recent policy and market developments that bear on this question, UK enrolment trends through 2013 will no doubt provide an important indicator with respect to Britain’s position in the global education marketplace.

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