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Is the international recruitment bubble about to burst?

New immigration numbers are out - and higher education has expanded again. Jim Dickinson considers the potential fall out from the figures
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

During the February half term I plonked myself down for the morning in a social learning space – on the top floor of a business school building at a post-92 university.

I didn’t notice at first, but throughout the morning the space got busier and busier – just not with students. There were a lot of school-age kids. Adults came and went each hour – chatting about deadlines, jobs and classes.

At first I thought it was some sort of visit, or holding space for an event – but the more I listened in, the more it became clear that the space around me was being used as a makeshift creche.

I should be clear, I think, that I’m not suggesting this was a big problem – for me, the parents or the kids. Campuses ought to be much more hospitable to childcare in my view, and there was quite a buzz.

But it was obvious that the space wasn’t ideal, clear that no-one there was running a proper childcare facility, and plain as day that this was happening in an “out of sight, out of mind” corner of the campus.

Is this an isolated issue, I was wondering, and if not is that a tenable position for the sector to be in?

Your numbers up

Well, the latest quarterly immigration figures are out from the Home Office, and they are in many ways quite extraordinary.

We’re talking here about numbers that cover Q4 of 2022, and so are likely to include the bulk of visas issued to students in the January intake.

They are also likely to cover previous years’ January intake students taking the opportunity to switch onto the graduate route.

The big headline is that in 2022 as a whole, 485,758 sponsored study visas were issued to main applicants – 81 per cent more than in 2019.

If we just isolate the quarter, the number of study visas issued for the January intake is up by almost 30,000 YOY to 116,063.

If we dive into that number, we find the number of visas issued to students from India in the quarter is up from 18,771 in 2102 to 30,591 in 2022, and for those from Nigeria from 6,036 in 2021 to 14,130 in 2022.

Topping up those numbers are dependants. More than one fifth (22 per cent) of all sponsored study related visas granted were to dependants of students (135,788), compared to 6 per cent (16,047) in 2019.

For India, 6,718 visas were issued to partners and children of students in the final quarter of 2021. In 2022, that number was 12,469. Meanwhile for Nigeria the 2021 Q4 figure was 6,861 – for the same period in 2022 that figure was 16,136.

If anyone is seriously suggesting that there is the academic and social infrastructure to adapt this quickly to these sorts of increases wherever they have happened, I have a bridge to sell them.

Whether you raise questions with the Home Office for granting the extra CAS, or whether you raise questions with providers for accepting these sorts of increases, on affordable and suitable accommodation alone it simply can’t be the case that these students are getting a good experience.

And as we’ve covered before, even if you ignore the fact that there weren’t 191,441 spare bedspaces across the UK’s student cities in 2021, there absolutely weren’t 81,292 spare bedspaces suitable for dependants in those cities in 2021.

Depend on me

You might remember this graph from the last quarterly figures – the sharp uptick is now even more pronounced:


The chart is underpinned by a remarkable “dependant rate” – this is the number of dependents per main applicant depending on the country being recruited from. The headline 2022 figure is 0.28 dependants per main applicant, but this ratio varies a lot by country:

  • China 0.01
  • Pakistan 0.30
  • India 0.28
  • Nigeria 1.03

It’s worth remembering that when I looked at the first three quarters of 2022, the overall ratio was 0.23, and the Nigeria ratio was at 0.90.

I’ve heard multiple stories of universities discouraging students from arriving with dependants because of the shortage of family accommodation. These are visas issued figures rather than actual arrivals figures – maybe students got their visas and left their family behind. But I doubt it.

Leave right now

The traditional “don’t count them in net migration stats” argument works only when the numbers are at a constant, or at least on a very gentle incline. When they’re shooting up this fast, no wonder politicians express concern – and as I’ve said before, if someone can point me to anyone that’s done proper infrastructure planning for these numbers, I’d love to meet them.

The “they leave anyway” argument also only really works if they… do. I’ve delved before into what we are starting to learn about contemporary international students leaving or not – with obvious sharp increases in switching to skilled routes and onto the graduate route.

Ideally we’d welcome both – but if they’re badly managed or a big surprise that will only fuel the argument that they should be sent back on graduation, or that there should be no graduate route at all.

The latter is a big reason for the increases we’ve seen in PGT recruitment, and we have some fresh graduate route numbers here too.

86,785 graduate route visas were issued in 2022, 31,537 of which were issued in Q4. That’s up from 28,238 the year before – 16,025 of which were issued in Q4. They all need somewhere to live too.

Importantly, the international students we have are not like the ones we used to have, they’re more likely to bring dependants we don’t have housing or facilities for, they’re more likely (by design) to be staying for longer, and the rapidity of the increases raise coping and capacity problems on campus.

Finding acceptance in a narrow space

My preference would be that we find a way to grow that infrastructure – but on that family accommodation issue, nobody will invest while we don’t know what the government will do to rules around dependants and international PGTs.

It’s not impossible. The student living strategy approach launched in Nottingham this week holds out the prospect of considering some of these needs in the round. Even better is this blog from Alex Usher on how Sheridan College in Canada approached the issue of international expansion:

…instead of trying to PR-spin its way out of the negative press, the college slowed international enrolments and reached out to civic leaders and social service agencies, most notably Punjabi Community Health Services and Indus Community Services, and the City of Brampton to begin working out a joint response to the challenge. The goal? To make Brampton the best-practice city in the country for helping international students reach their education (and immigration) goals.”

On the education and campus side, we have in England a regulatory system and a set of consumer choice signals that are hopelessly focused on home domiciled undergraduates – entirely unsuited to picking up the problems when international PGT grows this fast.

And if ever you were looking for an example of the way the state being siloed and depending on the “market” to magic up solutions to problems, this whole scenario is becoming a prime candidate. This is starting to look like a basic failure of planning.

Suella’s on crackdown

As usual, a reinvigorated debate about immigration will now ensue – with the signs being that Gillian Keegan is on the side of more international students, Braverman having to please the party’s right flank, and Sunak noting that the sector is doing almost too well against its targets. But responding to this really isn’t about using the same old lines about social and financial value.

For a start, international students themselves are starting to find their voice in all of this. This write up of a student evidence session held as part of Chris Skidmore’s new International Education Commission is fascinating partly because it surfaces issues that are rarely raised out loud – accommodation, integration, cost of living, feeling like a pound sign rather than a student, and feeling trapped once here:

You are making us think we are just a number, and I can tell you that 50% of the Nigerian students I’ve spoken to … with a spouse would go back home if they hadn’t invested so much in this trip and had the opportunity and the country back home was okay. You are making us feel like we’re just numbers, but we know what financial role we are putting into the university so we cannot be looked down on anymore.”

Even if the infrastructure was there and the lobbying was successful, there are bigger questions that surround the overall strategy being adopted to fund mass HE participation right across the West.

Every time the sector actively lobbies for (and encourages politicians to back more) international students, we are also allowing the state to reduce investment in HE, funding it instead via loans taken out by families in increasingly precarious positions in the global South.

While here, having often taken out onerous commercial loans to get here, large amounts of their money go into topping up the pension funds of those whose longer retirements are unsustainable without the yields generated by the PBSA students work long hours to afford the rent for.

Either that, or they’re living so far away as to make the student experience miserable, or in accommodation so crowded as to be unsafe. The anecdotes I hear to this end with alarming regularity are backed up by the numbers.

The more we do this, the more we suck talent out of the countries we recruit for, and the debts incurred make it harder for said students to contemplate returning.

The wealth and talent transfer is enormous – and anyone that’s progressive ought to at least acknowledge these downsides and possibilities. You can be concerned about this stuff without being Suella Braverman.

4 responses to “Is the international recruitment bubble about to burst?

  1. My university attracts international students from Nigeria, who wish to become nurses.
    Nigeria is on the red list if they were already to be nurses, so we aren’t supposed to be contributing to their nursing shortage. But the university seems happy to avoid thinking about that by bringing them in to become nurses, and let the loophole work for them.

  2. Nigeria, Pakistan, Ghana, and Bangladesh are all growing target markets for my university and I welcome them to our community. International students are subsidising the education of British students, instead of being grateful that they are doing this, this government is attacking them.


  3. The bigger problem, that many wishful thinkers wilfully ignore is the effects increasing numbers, especially dependents, have on local communities, schools, medical services and housing. Near to my Uni the local water boards sewerage plant cannot cope with the additional load as the plant was designed for the average one family to a house output, many of those houses are now student HMO’s with twice (and more) the number of ‘adult’ bodies (plus children) outputting effluvia and often following their ‘normal’ home countries practices which causes other loading and blockages issues. Then there’s the Universities and other operators student tower blocks, again huge extra loads on a system never designed to cope with their ‘output’. The failure of local fresh potable water supplies recently is also attributed in part to the increased load on that system required to flush the output away…

    University Senates and Councils have a role in preventing harm to local communities, it time they faced up to that, and controlling numbers of students, and dependents, is part of THEIR responsibilities.

  4. I think there needs to be a reality check here. Most international students at Post-92’s are Nigerians on Post Grad Business or STEM courses. They tend to be mature and bring their partner and children over. They are here for the postgraduate work visa and usually stay for the 2 years afterwards. In my experience, less than 5% of my PG International students have returned immediately to their country of origin.
    More importantly, the fees from international students are keeping some post-92’s solvent.

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