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UK educators alarmed by impact of visa restrictions

For years, the United Kingdom has been a leading study abroad destination worldwide, second only to the United States in many markets. But the British government’s recent decisions that affect visas for foreign students may jeopardise the country’s appeal – and the economic impact of its international education sector – especially as other countries ramp up their international student recruitment efforts.

New UK visa regulations place a limit on (a) how many years foreign students can spend studying in the country and (b) the number of hours of paid work they can do during and after their studies. Foreign students are now also barred from bringing family with them unless they are enrolled in a postgraduate course lasting more than one year.

Non-European Union students are estimated to add £5 billion annually to the UK economy and represent a major income stream for universities. But already, the new visa regulations are having major negative impacts for some universities, with one reporting a 40% drop in applications from non-EU students since last year, according to The Guardian. The paper quotes Professor Eric Thomas, the president of Universities UK (which represents 134 UK higher education institutions) as saying:

The effect on universities and the overall UK economy is one thing; the effect on students already studying in British institutions is another. Another Guardian piece revealed how students enrolled on degrees at private UK colleges are being shut out of institutions because visa restrictions effectively forced the institutions to close.

The visa changes stem from the Conservative government’s promise to cut migration by tens of thousands by 2015 and to fight back against “bogus institutions” (i.e., diploma mills). However, they also appear to be undermining the country’s position as a top study abroad destination.

This is all in the worldwide context, too, of other countries stepping up their recruitment efforts for foreign students. Most critically for the UK, both France and Germany are making it easier for international students to study in their countries via more relaxed work and visa policies (see “What are the elements of a successful national recruitment strategy?”).

And of course, there is the reality of changing student mobility patterns, where leading study abroad countries cannot be complacent about the share they command of international students. As we reported in “A more complex marketplace taking shape for 2012,” via UNESCO:

So far, this is what we can observe in terms of the apparent effects of the new UK visa rules:

  • The PIE News is reporting that “The number of student visas issued by the UK in the first quarter of 2012 fell by 62%, according to the government. The news comes a day after theOffice of National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the government is failing badly to meet its target to reduce net migration.”
  • There has been a dramatic increase in the number of bankruptcies in the UK education sector from 2010 to 2011. One hundred and sixty-nine private-sector UK educational institutions failed in 2011 – a 44% increase over the 117 closures that the industry saw the year before.

The British government, for its part, continues to assert that restricting student visas will not harm UK universities.

Nothing is certain in the world of international education – except that everything is uncertain and the competition to attract foreign students has never been fiercer. The UK government’s recent visa policies may be serving its political or policy goals, but at stake are the billions of pounds international students currently contribute to the UK economy each year as well as the international linkages that result from student mobility and the strength and stability of UK institutions with significant foreign student populations.

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