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6th Dec 2023

Notable government policy shifts affecting international students going into 2024

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • This special feature offers a closer look at the evolution of policies affecting the international education sectors of Australia, Canada, and the UK
  • PLEASE NOTE: There have been further updates to policies in Canada and Australia in the week since the writing of this post, and these updates dovetail with the themes we describe here
  • Growth in international student numbers is causing tension at a time when rental and housing costs have skyrocketed and public infrastructure is lagging behind population growth
  • Immigration regulations have been tightened in Canada and Australia
  • In the UK, the government is once again using policies affecting international students to lower net migration

Over the past couple of years, the governments of Australia, Canada, and the UK have significantly evolved their policies affecting international students and their international education sectors.

In all three countries, massive growth in the numbers of international students coincides with growing public concern over spiralling rental and housing prices and underfunded public infrastructure. Populations are expanding quickly, driven largely by new immigrants. And 2023 has been marked by too many cases of fraud on the part of unethical agents and institutions and reports of international students not receiving the kind of study experience they had been promised.

Expansive policies launched to counter shocking losses of international student revenues during the pandemic are now giving way to policies that could make it more difficult for some students to secure a study permit or stay on to work or immigrate.

Today, we look at the rapid shift in approach to international education that has occurred in Australia, Canada, and the UK between 2020 and 2023.

The disruption of the pandemic

The pandemic was a shock to economies everywhere, not least because the loss of international students equated to lost billions in revenue across multiple sectors. The value of international education became crystal clear to any who had doubted it.

The Canadian government acted quickly to mitigate the effects of travel restrictions and to keep the Canada education brand strong in overseas markets. It opened the border sooner to international students than was the case in other destinations. International students remained eligible for a post-study work permit even if they were studying 100% online from their home countries. Caps were lifted on the number of hours international students could work off campus. And a new immigration stream allowed more students to apply for permanent residency.

The UK government, meanwhile, opened a new immigration stream – the Student Route and Child Student Route – earlier than planned to counter the trend of international students deferring their study plans. It then opened its much-anticipated “Graduate Route” in 2021, providing international students with two-three years of post-study work rights. It allowed students studying by distance/blended learning to remain eligible for that route if they completed one term’s face-to-face learning in the UK.

Not coincidentally, Canada and the UK expanded their international enrolment during the years of the pandemic. Canada’s foreign enrolment is now 27% higher than in 2019 (808,000), while the number of international students in UK universities was 22% higher in 2021/22 (679,970) than in 2019/20.

By 2022, Australia had lost market share to Canada and the UK, but it quickly rolled out a series of policies to earn it back, including:

By mid-2023, international student numbers in Australia had jumped to 645,516 – exceeding the pre-pandemic total.

Questions about the pace of growth

It’s clear that governmental policies played an important role in the ability of Canada, the UK, and later, Australia, to remain top study destinations despite the interruption of COVID-19. They worked quickly and led to a surge of international students in each destination.

This is good news for institutions that responsibly host international students, with a range of supports to facilitate their success. It is good news for communities with capacity to absorb more international students, for example through housing and healthcare. It is good news for businesses and sectors that profit from students’ spending while they are in Canada, and for organisations and companies that gain access to a larger pool of talented international student graduates.

But several trends are dulling the excitement around burgeoning international student numbers:

  • There is an affordability crisis in all three destinations, with appropriate accommodation out of reach for too many – including some international students;
  • There have been much-publicised cases of agents or institutions not acting in the best interests of students;
  • Public infrastructure is often not keeping up with an expanding population of newcomers;
  • Public unease about migration levels is growing.

In the context of these trends, there has been a distinct move towards greater quality control in the international education sectors in Australia and Canada. Here are some of the policy developments that have occurred in those countries over the second half of 2023.

Australia

  • There is now far more regulation of education agents and the vocational training sector (VET).
  • Students can no longer hold “concurrent COEs” (Confirmations of Enrolments) that had allowed them to switch from higher education to lower-cost/quality VET providers.
  • The amount of savings that international students must have to get a study visa has risen by 17%.
  • More scrutiny is being applied to “high-risk cohorts” (of prospective students) that tend to submit a higher volume of fraudulent applications.
  • The “Pandemic Event” visa – a renewable 12-month document allowing students to work in any sector of the economy, for more than one employer if desired – will be ended.
  • See even more recent updates here.

Canada

  • Canadian colleges and universities are now required to confirm every applicant’s letter of acceptance directly with IRCC, a measure aimed at protecting prospective students from letter-of-acceptance fraud.
  • A new framework in fall 2024 will reward institutions “recognised” for providing excellent services and outcomes to international students with priority visa processing.
  • IRCC is now considering a number of additional policy changes by end of year, including whether or not to extend a temporary policy (currently in effect) that allowed some students to work beyond a 20-hour-per-week cap during their studies.
  • See even more recent updates here.

More to come?

The new quality control measures in Australia and Canada are designed to protect the integrity of the system and international students coming into it.

Another announcement in Canada, however, suggests that it could become more difficult for students who do not graduate from Canadian institutions with prioritised skills to obtain a Post-Graduation Work Permit. The government will review the Post-Graduation Work Permit in the coming months and introduce reforms to “better calibrate it to the needs of the labour market.”

And then there are the rumblings in both countries about the notion that stemming the flow of international students – or drawing more revenue from them – will ease cost of living and housing prices. Underlying those rumblings is a belief that the current volume of international students is overwhelming public infrastructure. So far, this perception has not made its way into official policies but has certainly been a feature of national media coverage in recent months.

UK goes a step further

International students in the UK are coping with a dramatic flip-flop in immigration policies directly affecting them.

When the UK restored post-study work rights in 2021, demand among non-EU students increased significantly, and it seemed that the unwelcoming stance of the Theresa May administration was a thing of the past. (Her administration had restricted work rights to six months, leading to a steep decline in key markets including India.)

Since then, non-EU students have been the drivers of enrolment growth – a great relief to universities coping with the effects of Brexit on EU student mobility to the UK. In 2021/22, non-EU enrolments surged by 24% year-over-year, with new, first-year enrolments growing by 32%. By contrast, the total number of EU students fell by 21% – and 53% fewer first-year students came from the EU compared with the previous year.

But the warm welcome of non-EU students has cooled off under Prime Minister Sunak’s administration. Mr Sunak considered a cap on international students in 2022 and limiting visas to those accepted by top universities. This didn’t happen, but in June 2023, then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced that international students, other than research postgraduates, would no longer be permitted to bring their dependants with them to the UK starting in January 2024 (less than a month from the time of this writing).

Already, the number of non-EU students applying to UK universities is falling. But that’s not all. Just this week, new House Secretary James Cleverly announced:

“Having already banned overseas master’s students from bringing family members to the UK, I have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review the graduate route to prevent abuse, to protect the integrity and quality of the UK’s outstanding higher education sector.”

There are media reports suggesting that the review could result in post-study work rights being once again restricted to six months.

When announcing the review of the Graduate Route, and in the span of one sentence, Mr Cleverly drew no line between illegal and legal arrivals to the UK, saying that both would be reduced in a drive to lower new migration:

“The British people want to reduce overall immigration numbers – not only by stopping the boats and shutting down illegal routes but by well-managed reduction in legal migration.”

The UK shadow minister for higher education, Matt Western, responded to the threats to the Graduate Route by saying that prospective students will already be aware of the immigration review:

“It’s extraordinary that when you have a successful export that you would want to damage it. Young people, students looking to travel abroad, they are well connected and well read.”

Finally, international students will have to pay more, and be paid more, if they want to work in the UK. The amount needed to get a Skilled Worker visa has been bumped to £38,700 and those applying for a family visa will now need a salary level of £38,700.

A time of risk, and different competitive dynamics

In Australia and Canada, institutions and agents have been made acutely aware of a need to improve quality controls and recruitment over the course of 2023. Institutions’ ability to receive international students will now hinge on staying on the right side of new regulations and performance indicators.

Will US stand to gain?

And what of the US, the other member of the so-called “Big Four” English-speaking destinations? There is definitely a new energy around international student recruitment on the part of the US government, especially when it comes to the Indian market, which is such a key source of students for Australian, Canadian, and UK educators.

A survey from Studyportals, UniBuddy, and the British Council IELTS of 126,000 students across the globe this year found that the US now leads the Big Four in student satisfaction.

Of the findings, Edwin van Rest, co-founder and CEO of Studyportals says: “There is a different political climate in the US now compared to 2021. The State Department has done a lot of work to make international students a priority and the climate is more welcoming.”

For additional background, please see:

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