2024 is looking pretty bleak from here

Will there be further restrictions on international students ahead of the election?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On the day of the publication of 2023 Q3 immigration figures, new Home Secretary James Cleverly appeared to be holding a positive line on international students:

The biggest drivers of immigration to the UK are students and health care workers – [they] are testament to both our world-leading university sector and our ability to use our immigration system to prioritise the skills we need.

But ever since, the right of the Conservative Party has been ramping up the pressure to do more on legal migration – as they were at their conference in September – ahead of an assumed political comeback for Farage once he returns from Australia.

Political commentator Sam Freedman said something interesting on the issue at the weekend:

He went on to argue that they are “ramping up salience” on the issue when there is nothing they can do about the numbers people will be focusing on.

That’s true of course – but it all suggests that the holding of the line is predicated on Q4’s figures, which will emerge in late February, showing a substantial fall.

They got a bit lost underneath the “full year to date” figures, but we already know that the Q3 figures showed a year-on-year drop in applications for a visa of 25 per cent for Nigeria, and an over 5 per cent fall for India.

Add in (or, if you will, take out) the coming wipeout of dependants, and you get the Sunak quote from last week:

I announced previously significant tightening up on the number of dependants that students can bring, which has seen a very striking rise over the past year or two. This represents the single biggest measure of restriction on legal migration that anyone’s announced in years.

The question is the extent to which the measure not just removes dependants from the numbers, but removes the main visa holders too.

Applications admin automator Enroly was pretty much on the money when it issued its predictions for Q3 a few months ago – we now have its numbers for Q4, and it’s all looking pretty bleak.

Comparing to the same point in the January 2023 intake cycle, it can see deposit payments down by 52 per cent, CAS issuance down by 64 per cent and visa issuance down by 71 per cent.

That’s driven partly by a “collapse” in the Nigerian market, where it says deposits and CAS/visa issued are down by 74 per cent and 76 per cent respectively. And it can also see large falls in students from what is now the UK’s largest market India – with deposits down 52 per cent and CAS/visa issued down by 66 per cent.

And having seen increases of more than 100 per cent for Pakistan students in September, it’s now showing a decline of 17 per cent for this January quarter.

This is the sort of stuff that ministers will be able to see and take “comfort” from behind the scenes as they glide towards the next official release – but for universities that have been hoping to make up ground towards their “optimism-biased” projections following a difficult summer, will be very difficult news indeed.

The Home Office never tells us how many students bring dependants, only the total number of dependant visas issued per country – so we can’t see how much of the decline is specific changes to that dependant policy versus cost of living, the collapse of the Naira and the general mood music surrounding around the UK as a destination.

And the rumours that the Home Office will imminently increase the amount of money students need to get into the country to support themselves won’t improve things – despite the fact that morally it’s absolutely the right thing to do, and will help avoid defaults once they’re here.

Where universities have been putting off “difficult decisions” and accommodating (or, arguably, not accommodating) international demand, early 2024 now looks like a period where that can’t be put off any longer.

Higher education is an “industry” profoundly unsuited to rapid increases in student numbers, just as it is profoundly unsuited to rapid decreases too – even if the increases and decreases are for one year PGT provision. Regulation of it has been much too slow and much too UG-focussed to spot the student experience problems with rapid expansion, and the danger is that it’s miles away on rapid contraction as well.

But when the scaling up was about plugging financial holes elsewhere, the problem won’t just be in business schools – as the SSRs in all sorts of other subjects come under much closer scrutiny than they have before.

2024 looks like no fun at all – a real-terms pay increase for staff under collective bargaining looks doubtful, restructures and possible collapses will abound, and the need for measures to protect students from the impacts of all this has never been greater.

And that’s all while home demand contracts too – one aspect of last week’s student loan figures that many missed was worrying numbers on England-domiciled take up:

…and even more worrying numbers on England-domiciled PGT:

Assuming it takes office in 2024, Labour will almost certainly find itself thrust into the middle of an HE crisis pretty quickly – and almost no levers to fix it other than the money it says isn’t there.

5 responses to “2024 is looking pretty bleak from here

  1. “a pay increase for staff under collective bargaining looks doubtful” – do we mean in nominal or real terms here? I completely believe in real terms there will be a cut in pay, but even with the extraordinary pressures on institutions I find it incredible that UCEA will open, let alone close, negotiations with a 0% settlement.

  2. Thanks for clarifying. I thought the idea of a real terms increase with inflation likely at >3% (but not at the extraordinary levels that inspired near market-rate increases last year) was so unlikely you must’ve meant nominal!

  3. What we are going to see is an acceleration of post-92s with arms length companies so they can fire and hire to move more and more staff out of TPS.

    We are absolutely going to see market failure and some takeovers.

  4. If the government goes ahead with its plans for a much higher salary thresholds for work visas, then I would expect Indian and Nigerian student numbers to drop even more sharply as it would remove the opportunity of working after your degree for most international students (or after the graduate visa expires, anyway). People would just study in Canada or Australia instead.

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