Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
11th Jun 2013

New report raises alarm regarding declining enrolment in UK

Concerns remain high over the British government’s tightened visa rules as they relate to the perception of the UK as a study abroad destination; their effect on applications and enrolments; and correspondingly, the revenue lost when international students decide to go elsewhere to study. Mr Richard Adams, writing for The Guardian, cites a new study from Universities UK warning that the visa rules could cause the UK to:

  • Lose GBP 2.4 billion over the next decade;
  • Lose many students to the US and Canada in particular;
  • Put the country’s reputation for international education at risk for many years.

The study, called “The Funding Environment for Universities,” found that “while the total number of overseas students from outside the EU enrolled rose by 1.5% in 2011/12, first-year numbers had fallen.” The number of undergraduate entrants did increase, but at the post-graduate level (the level of study of most international students), numbers fell. Within this, the number of first-year, post-graduate students fell by 2.6% on the previous year, and by 3.7% overall, with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects taking a particularly strong hit. This is significant because a declining stock of new entrants – if the pattern persists – will reflect itself in a declining total student population in the years to come. In addition, the first-year enrolment declines of 2011/12 sharply reverse the growth seen in previous years. However, immigration minister Mr Mark Harper disagreed with University UK’s findings, saying: “Last week's Ucas statistics show applications from international students are up 5.5% compared to this time last year, and latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show the total number of non-EU students at our universities continues to rise.”

Perception can be very powerful

Despite differing accounts of application and enrolment numbers as well as the fact that the UK maintains that it is incredibly welcoming to and supportive of “the best and brightest students,” many are saying that there is a message going out to students overseas that they are not welcome. And, according to Universities UK, there were significant declines in British universities’ new enrolments in 2011/12 from India (fall of 32%), Pakistan (22%), and Saudi Arabia (31%). In comparison, they say, the “number of Saudi Arabian students enrolled in the US during 2011/12 grew by more than 50% on the previous year." UK business secretary Mr Vince Cable, speaking at the Global University Summit, was particularly concerned about what’s being said about his country in India:

"In some of the Indian provincial newspapers the message has gone out that the British no longer want Indian students, which is wrong. But that's the message that has gone out."

Mr Cable made a point of saying he did not see British immigration declines as “triumphs” when they deleteriously affect international students – and believes these students should not be lumped into an overall “immigration” category that should be reduced in number. University UK’s “Funding for Universities” report corroborates the sense that recruitment of Indian students in particular is suffering among UK universities, saying:

“When asked about changes in the number of new entrants from particular countries, the most frequently-referenced country from which demand had remained strong was China, whilst the most referenced fall in enrolments came from India.”

Mr Cable’s pro-international student position was strongly rebutted by Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migration Watch UK, who said, "Vince Cable might not want to control immigration, but the public overwhelmingly do."

UK not alone in registering softening demand from India

PIER Online’s International Education Update from June notes that the number of Indian students enrolling in Australian institutions has plummeted to 40% of their 2009 peak, according to a report in The Australia. PIER quotes one education agent, Mr Ravi Lochan Singh, as saying this is due to “factors including the fluctuating global economy, the "restricted reach" of Indian education scholarships, increased educational opportunity in India and localised events, such as natural disasters and incidents of violence involving international students.” Mr Singh said the declines are being registered by Canada, the US, and New Zealand as well, and “predicted that the five countries would collectively recruit 55,000 Indian students this year, around a third of their combined haul for 2009 (150,000 enrolments) and Australia’s 2009 Indian enrolments alone.”

UK’s STEM sector may be at risk if international students are put off of studying in the country

Ms Sarah Mulley, writing for The Guardian, drew special attention in a recent article about the dangers to the STEM sector in the UK if international students don’t study these subjects in the UK, as well as stay on in the country to contribute needed skills: “Particularly worrying is the fact that many strategically important STEM departments depend heavily on international students for their very existence. The student unable to get a visa to study at a UK FE college this year might have been the star student in a university maths department in 2015, and the top lecturer in that department in 2030.”

Indeed, University UK reports that the number of international new entrants studying STEM subjects fell by almost 8% in 2011/12, from 58,815 to 54,220. The biggest drop in percentage terms was in computer sciences, followed by subjects allied to medicine.

As recently as late-2012, the British government dismissed advice from the House of Lords to rethink its visa policies because they are threatening the viability of STEM programmes. The risk is fairly dire: The PIE News reports that “in 2009/10, 13% of first degree qualifiers, 55% of masters degree qualifiers and 42% of PhD qualifiers from STEM degrees were from overseas.” Yet the government simply said: “We acknowledge the committee’s concern that an unintended consequence of the reforms to the student route could be a fall in legitimate student numbers and that some disciplines – particularly STEM postgraduate taught courses – may rely on international students for viability. The government will be closely monitoring the impact of the reforms and look for any unintended consequences, as is good policy making practice.”

The story continues to unfold

More detailed data for 2012/13 will become available next year, according to Universities UK. In the meantime, their current data does suggest that demand has continued to soften over the past year: "Institutions were asked whether or not they met their international student recruitment targets for the present and previous academic years. Of those who set targets, the percentage of respondents who successfully met them fell from 59% in 2011/12 to 44% in 2012/13."

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