Hostility to international students is partly about the rate of expansion

It can feel baffling for those that see international recruitment as a UK success story.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

But the important thing to remember about the government’s apparent hostility to international students is the rate of increases that we’ve seen in recent years.

When the introduction of the “graduate route” post-study work visa was impact-assessed by the Home Office in 2020, it assumed average annual increases in non-EU enrolments of between 25,400 and 30,600 per year over the first five years of the policy.

So here’s what they modelled versus what then happened:

Then add dependants – barely mentioned in the impact assessment, never anticipated, and so not modelled for impacts:

In other words AY 2022/23 closed out at about 360k visas issued ahead of where the estimate was.

Graduate route takeup has been about 1 in 4, which isn’t far off what they guessed – but it’s a quarter of a much bigger figure than they thought, and itself has a compound impact on temporary population growth.

The impact assessment did some stuff on regional location of where graduates would end up – but nothing much on any impacts of very high growth itself. The point is that population absorption – both logistically and politically – is straightforward when increases are modest and spread over time. It’s a different story when it’s very high numbers very quickly.

In some ways it’s a wonder they let growth get so big so fast without taking action until now. It’s also an open question as to who’s to “blame” for the estimate being so out.

Either way, the sector “depending” on the money from the astonishing increases was never a smart thing to do when doing so under this particular government.

As a result a headline target of 300k fewer visas, 150k of which is the student dependant stuff, might one day be interpreted as “miraculous that they didn’t chop it back to what they modelled”.

Put another way – today’s mix of old and new announcements probably will result in “the biggest ever cut to legal migration”.

But it’s being done against a backdrop of a rise of about 400k more visas a year (100k ish of which stay on on the grad route) in three years – all of which are students. That’s likely not far off the biggest ever increase in legal temp migration – which was unlikely to survive unscathed under a government whose manifestos keep promising lower numbers.

For DfE and the Treasury, this has all enabled home domiciled fees to be frozen without causing a huge amount of pain. But let’s not assume that there’s a grand plan in there anywhere – this is more likely chaotic decision making lurching from pressure point to point, without anyone stepping back to determine any kind of “plan”.

The questions now surround what happens next.

The Department for Education’s “restructuring regime” that was put into place when everyone thought Covid would spell financial doom was largely avoided via healthy (and, in the end, fairly misleading for those enrolling) recruitment, coupled with some lower operating costs, furlough money and “no refunds”.

Since then it’s these astonishing increases in PGT that have kept the restructuring regime wolf from the door. Some in the sector will be hoping that a version of it is resuscitated.

2 responses to “Hostility to international students is partly about the rate of expansion

  1. Completely agree with:
    “Either way, the sector ‘depending’ on the money from the astonishing increases was never a smart thing to do when doing so under this particular government.”

    Yet so many universities seem to have focused on growth in international student numbers as the answer to their financial challenges.

  2. Well, that’s not surprising, given the pain and anguish involved in cutting courses and staff. Let’s not forget that some of the most expensive courses are in STEM, which the government are keenest on, not in the courses they would like people to perceive as ‘low quality’ because fewer graduates got higher paid jobs in the past.

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