Over exposed: where are the international students?

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In the week following the EU referendum, we published a quick overview of the institutions with the highest numbers and proportions of EU students, on the assumption that this segment of the higher education market was now under threat.

However, the past few weeks has shown that it is not only EU students but the entire international student market that is now in jeopardy depending on the extent to which the new government follows through on its tough rhetoric.

The saga has played out rather oddly. First, Amber Rudd announced a new crackdown on international students taking ‘low quality’ courses, prompting near-panic in universities. It then emerged that Rudd herself had tried to persuade the Prime Minister to remove students from net migration statistics, which would have removed international students from being the very political football she had kicked during her party conference speech.

The extent of the cabinet split on the matter became even clearer when Philip Hammond said in not so many words that he was supportive of Rudd’s efforts to remove students from net migration, and clearly responded positively to UUK polling that appeared to back his position up. The Chancellor was promptly slapped down by a Downing Street spokesperson the following day, but not until after an afternoon of confusion when another spokesperson had suggested the matter was “under review”.

Review or no review, the whole debate has become caught up in the wider problems the government is now facing in taking unprecedentedly tough action on immigration but also trying to avoid harming a strong British export industry. It is quite the political mess, and despite having friends in high places such as Hammond, and perhaps even Boris Johnson, universities should remain nervous about their long-term prospects for international recruitment.

The saga has evidently damaged the UK higher education brand in overseas markets, particularly in India, where perceptions of the UK as an attractive place to study have been in decline for years. A significant drop in international student recruitment would be a strain across the sector, but the pain would be felt in some institutions more than others.

To that end, I have compiled data from HESA for the 2014-15 academic year to look at which institutions might be most vulnerable to Theresa May’s challenge to create a business model without international student recruitment. I have also compared the numbers of international students with the results of the EU referendum, to try and establish whether areas that voted to Leave have high numbers of student immigrants that may be causing anxiety in those communities.

Where in the UK are international students?

International students are spread across the UK. Northern Ireland has much lower numbers as a proportion than England, Scotland and Wales. International students are roughly evenly split between undergraduates and postgraduates, meaning that postgraduate courses are far more reliant on international students as a proportion of their total.

 Total UG international% UG internationalTotal PG international% PG international
UK1537459%15826529%
England1303109%13088530%
Northern Ireland16954%110010%
Scotland128607%1634529%
Wales88758%993035%

Which universities are most reliant on international undergraduates?

The universities with the highest numbers of international undergraduates are:

InstitutionTotal UG international% UG International
The University of Manchester513519%
University College London462527%
University of the Arts, London453031%
The University of Liverpool451025%
Coventry University390018%
The University of Edinburgh351517%
University of Nottingham326014%
The University of Sheffield324517%
Cardiff University280513%
University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne275516%
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine261529%
The University of Warwick258017%
The University of St Andrews250532%
The University of Exeter250515%
The University of Westminster249515%
King's College London232013%

And the universities with the highest proportions of international undergraduates are:

InstitutionTotal UG international% UG International
The University of Buckingham47541%
London School of Economics and Political Science169038%
The University of St Andrews250532%
University of the Arts, London453031%
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine261529%
University College London462527%
The School of Oriental and African Studies78526%
The University of Liverpool451025%
Royal Academy of Music8524%
Royal College of Music9522%
The City University207521%
The University of Lancaster180520%
The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts14520%
The University of Manchester513519%
The University of Sussex197519%

Which universities are most reliant on international postgraduates?

The universities with the highest numbers of international postgraduates are:

InstitutionTotal PG international% PG International
University College London495026%
The University of Birmingham492535%
The University of Manchester486541%
The University of Sheffield390548%
The University of Oxford356038%
London School of Economics and Political Science346056%
Coventry University344557%
The University of Leicester342549%
The University of Southampton332543%
The University of Edinburgh323037%
Cardiff Metropolitan University304564%
The University of Leeds304038%
The City University299535%
The University of Warwick294533%
Cardiff University286532%
University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne284545%

And the universities with the highest proportions of international postgraduates are:

InstitutionTotal PG international% PG International
Cardiff Metropolitan University304564%
Coventry University344557%
London School of Economics and Political Science346056%
The University of Sunderland152554%
University College Birmingham25053%
Brunel University London205051%
London Business School92051%
The University of Leicester342549%
The University of Sheffield390548%
University of Bedfordshire185546%
University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne284545%
University of the Arts, London147045%
Queen Mary University of London200044%
The University of Southampton332543%
University of Durham198542%
Loughborough University144042%

International students and the Brexit vote

The Prime Minister’s fixation with cutting international student numbers as part of a wider cut-down on immigration has been primarily justified by the Brexit vote, which researchers have shown to be overwhelming to do with dissatisfaction with immigration. However, as you may have already observed from the tables above, large numbers of international students are primarily in areas that voted to Remain in the referendum: London, Scotland, Manchester, and Cardiff in particular.

InstitutionTotal international studentsRemain or Leave% Leave
The University of Manchester10000Strong Remain39.64% (Manchester)
University College London9575Strong Remain25.06% (Camden)
Coventry University7345Strong Leave55.6% (Coventry)
The University of Sheffield7150Narrow Leave50.99% (Sheffield)
The University of Birmingham6845Narrow Leave50.42% (Birmingham)
The University of Edinburgh6745Strong Remain25.56% (City of Edinburgh)
The University of Liverpool6230Strong Remain41.81% (Liverpool)
University of the Arts, London6000Strong Remain25.06% (Camden)
University of Nottingham5710Narrow Leave50.84% (Nottingham)
Cardiff University5670Strong Remain39.98% (Cardiff)
University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne5600Narrow Remain49.4% (Newcastle upon Tyne)
The University of Warwick5525Strong Remain41.22% (Warwick)

Areas with high numbers of international students that voted to Leave in June only did so very narrowly, such as Sheffield, Birmingham, Southampton, Canterbury, Colchester, Swansea, and Nottingham. Coventry and Warwick Universities, though based in Coventry, which voted to Leave, have many students living outside the city in Warwick District Council, which voted to Remain.

A very top-level analysis of the referendum result shows a small number of areas that voted strongly to Leave (55% plus) that have a high number of international students, though as can be seen, many of these institutions are well down the list compared to the wider sector. The vast majority of international students appear to reside in areas that voted to Remain in the EU, further underlining how futile a clampdown would likely be in addressing voters’ broader concerns about immigration.

InstitutionInternational students (UG and PG)% Leave vote of local authority
Coventry University734555.6% (Coventry)
University of Durham368057.55% (County Durham)
The University of Sunderland353561.34% (Sunderland)
The University of Portsmouth288558.08% (Portsmouth)
University of Bedfordshire266556.55% (Luton)
The University of Hull230567.62% (Kingston upon Hull)

This analysis is only skin deep. Research has shown that a strong Leave vote did not correlate so much with the size of the immigrant population as with the proportionate change in the immigrant population over the last decade. It nonetheless seems unlikely that in many communities for whom immigration is a big concern that international students are a visible presence. Rather, international students tend to reside in more liberal, cosmopolitan, and relatively wealthy big cities that voted to Remain or only very narrowly to Leave.

4 thoughts on “Over exposed: where are the international students?”

  1. JIM DICKINSON says:

    Brilliant stuff David.

    The headline reliance numbers are interesting but I think can mask the extent to which International students make individual courses/subjects viable at an HEI.

    I fear without them Universities will survive but geographical coverage of subjects will suffer, which is bad news for those not willing or able to leave home.

  2. David Miller says:

    We are competing in a global market but have a government which seems intent on batting for the opposition. While the American, Canadian, Australian and now Irish governments are doing all they can to make International students welcome, the UK government gives off the opposite vibe. And surprise, surprise, it’s already impacting our country’s competitive performance.

    Unwilling to wait for the HESA data to come out in January 2017, I submitted an FOI request to the Home Office asking for Tier 4 international student visa applications for 2015 and four years previous. The bad news is that applications dropped by almost 5% in 2015 to 208,385 after two years of stability. India is dropping like a stone with another 13% decline in 2015 – 9,835 compared to over 31,000 in 2011. China continues to flourish with 80,000 applications in 2015 making up over 38% of the UK total. Where is the evidence that International students outstay their welcome? 99.9% of Chinese students return home after completing their degree. We need Amber to turn Green.

  3. Mike says:

    Good attempt at analysis but needs more fine tuning on the geographical basis of the Brexit comparison eg Warwick University is not in Warwick and nor do many of its students live there; Coventry University has a large international student body at its London Campus (as do a few others); University of Bedfordshire is not just in Luton but in Bedford as well, etc.

    The apparent correlation of the remain vote with high numbers of international students is probably more to do with the location of large universities tending to be linked to a higher proportion of the local population having higher educational attainment, and the very strong correlation of leave voters with lower educational attainment. These are the people HE has failed to reach and it is not going to be changed by just lobbying government, but by universities as a whole working more strongly in these areas to show that they have something to offer the populations.

  4. Aly says:

    Policy makers must keep in mind the knowledge and expertise international students sharing to the countries growth. further International students are paying actually the fees of local students so in this way the local residents pay less to get better and better education.

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