This article is more than 2 years old

Why the UK immigration system must stay attractive to exchange students

Sarah Bevan explains how a small tweak to immigration rules could enhance the UK's attractiveness as a destination for international student exchange
This article is more than 2 years old

Sarah Bevan is a policy researcher at Universities UK

The Turing Scheme creates exciting opportunities for UK students to study around the world and forge new, global links. To maximise Turing’s success, it’s important that the UK remains an attractive destination for exchange students coming to the UK.

However, new research by Universities UK (UUK) suggests that current visa requirements for exchange students on placements of more than six months may be hurting our chances.

We believe the UK government can change this by making a minor change to the Visitor immigration route to increase the length of time that short-term exchange students are permitted to stay in the UK from six months to one academic year.

Why exchange students?

We know that global mobility has lots of benefits for exchange students themselves, who will gain academically, professionally, and personally from their time spent in the UK. But the UK benefits too.

Vitally, exchange students create opportunities for UK-based students. Because of how exchange partnerships typically work, increasing the number of incoming students hosted in this country will create more opportunities for UK students to study at universities abroad.

Achieving this will be crucial to the success of the Turing Scheme, the UK government’s new global mobility programme for UK-based students – so it’s essential that the UK remains an attractive partner destination. As one international exchange manager working in a UK university summed it up earlier this year,If we cannot host (exchange) students, our partners are unlikely to carry on hosting ours.”

Exchange students also bring global perspectives to academia and campus life, making our universities more international. Many exchange students make lifelong connections in the UK, creating strong, lasting links between the UK and many countries abroad. Exchange students, keen to “make the most” of their short time in the UK, also contribute to the economy and increase the value of the UK’s education-related exports.

UUK modelling suggests that exchange students contribute up to £470 million to the UK economy each year.

Where does the immigration system come in?

Since the introduction of the points-based immigration system at the start of 2021, all exchange students coming to the UK require a visa (although some nationalities, including EEA nationals, may be exempt for visits under six months). A comparison of the two main visa routes are seen below:

Standard Visitor Student
Length of stay Up to six months Duration of studies
Application fee £0-95 £348
Immigration health surcharge None £470 (p/a)
English language requirements None (HEIs may have individual requirements) At least CEFR B2


The UK immigration system is acting as a barrier to growth in international exchanges, as well as threatening the sustainability of existing exchange partnerships, particularly in Europe.

Between 2015-20, almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of exchange students from the EU – who weren’t subject to any immigration requirements – chose to come to the UK for between 24 weeks and one year, rather than opting for a shorter placement.

However, only just over half (55 per cent) of students from elsewhere in the world – who required a Tier 4 visa (now Student visa) to come to the UK for more than six months – stayed in the UK this long. This suggests that fewer immigration requirements are associated with a longer exchange in the UK, and the current system is acting as a barrier.

These immigration barriers only previously affected non-EU citizens but EU exchange students – especially those looking to do a placement over six months – are now subject to them, too.

Universities surveyed by UUK International this summer told us that they are already experiencing a notable shift among EU exchange students, from year-long exchange placements to shorter, single-semester placements – or in some cases, even dropping out of coming to the UK altogether.

Universities attribute this decline directly to EU students not viewing the Student visa as a viable option for an exchange trip due to the expense, bureaucracy, and need to prove English language requirements. On average, 12,900 EU students would now require a Student visa to come on exchange to the UK each year, and are at risk of reducing the length of their exchange, or not coming at all. That represents one-third of all exchange students coming to the UK each year.

A recent survey of UUK members showed that almost all (97 per cent) felt immigration barriers were the greatest or second-greatest barrier to maintaining partnerships with EU universities, representing a major risk to the success of the Turing Scheme.

UUK’s proposal

We’re calling on the Home Office to make a change to the Visitor immigration route, and increase the length of time that short-term exchange students are permitted to stay in the UK from six months to one academic year.

This minor reform will make it significantly less expensive, less bureaucratic, and easier to evidence for exchange students seeking to come to the UK. This would also bring the immigration offer to exchange students in line with the immigration route for visiting academics.

Most importantly, this change will boost the UK’s attractiveness as an exchange destination, allowing UK universities to boost exchanges from around the world, while maintaining ties with existing EU partnerships. This is crucial if the UK is to realise the full potential of the Turing Scheme.

One response to “Why the UK immigration system must stay attractive to exchange students

  1. I think this makes a lot of sense, but please note that there already is a Short-term study visa (stay in the UK for the length of your course plus an extra 30 days as long as your stay is no longer than 11 months). It costs £186 plus the healthcare surcharge of £470. This visa is mainly for language development and has various restrictions.

    My organisation, British Accreditation Council, accredits over 200 providers with 300,000 students in 20 countries. Many use this route.

    Professor David Law, Deputy Chair of BAC Council

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