GK Associate Hugo Tuckett assesses the recent student visa reforms, and what they mean for the higher education sector.
With the Government continuing to struggle in the polls, Rishi Sunak has launched a full-frontal assault on the immigration system aimed at bringing numbers down and cutting into Labour’s seemingly unassailable lead.
Following a record net migration figure of 745,000 in 2022, the Government has undertaken a series of measures to tighten the UK’s immigration system. As they are the largest group of non-EU migrants, international students have come into the firing line.
In May 2023, the Government introduced new restrictions to student visa routes by preventing international students from bringing family members on all but post-graduate research routes, as well as banning people from switching into work routes until their studies have been completed. These measures officially came into force on 1 January 2024.
The Government expects this to result in an estimated 140,000 fewer people arriving in the UK. However, with years of frozen domestic tuition fees and reductions to teaching grants stemming from Britain’s exit from the EU, it is unclear whether the UK will retain its attractiveness to international students, the very group who have been covering the sector’s budgetary shortfalls.
Notably, the Government’s own impact assessment refuses to consider the effects of preventing international students from bringing dependants on all but post-graduate research routes, given the lack of available evidence to determine how many students (who bring dependants) will be dissuaded. On a more positive note, the impact assessment finds that only 2% of total students with an expired student visa would be affected by the ban on switching work routes until their studies had been completed.
Given the distinct possibility that numbers of international students arriving in the UK drop because of the changes, financial pressure will grow on higher education providers who have made over-optimistic assumptions about future growth in international student numbers as a means of balancing the books.
As we enter an election year in which the Conservatives will be reluctant to loosen immigration controls, the likelihood that some providers collapse under the financial strain cannot be overlooked.