The UK student migration route recently witnessed a dramatic surge surpassing other categories including employment and family-based visas. Factors responsible include the post-Brexit changes in immigration rules which seemingly improve the country’s acceptance rate among international students, especially non-EU nationals.
Before Brexit, Canada, the United States, and some other countries had started performing better than the UK in overseas student market share. For instance, Nigeria, one of the countries with the highest applicants to the UK, saw a considerable decrease from 18,020 in 2013/2014 to 10,540 in 2017/18. The difficulty in visa processing was cited in a Carnegie Empowerment for Peace (CEP) report as one of the likely causes. Other nations seemed to provide simpler routes. However, since UK’s final withdrawal from the EU, more applicants now prefer the country due to recent adjustments that made it much more accessible as well as other benefits like the postgraduate study visa.
Compared to 2020, Over 89% more sponsored study visas were awarded in 2021 (in the year ending March 2022), totalling a record 432,279 visas for students and their dependent family members. The post-Brexit laws implemented in January 2021 have contributed to this by including citizens of the European Union, the European Economic Area, and Switzerland (with the exception of the Irish) in the category of people who need a visa to study in the UK. However, just 23,395 (5%) of all approved visas went to this demographic. This indicates a far stronger intercontinental pool, particularly from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Although the COVID-19-induced travel disruption in 2020 contributed to the year-on-year variations, the current number exceeds the approvals seen before the pandemic. This indicates that the trend will continue at least for the foreseeable future. For example, between January and June of this year, the UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) issued 65,929 student visas to Nigerians, representing a 222.8% higher than the 20,427 approved during the same period in 2021.
The Graduate visa, which enables overseas students to remain in the UK for two or three years after finishing their degrees, is another major influence. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) reports that, 71% of foreign students want to remain in the country after graduation. Before Brexit, they were only allowed additional four months after finishing their studies. But since the implementation of the Graduate Route, staying longer post-study now become much easier, and this could mean a stepping stone to permanent residency (indefinite leave to remain) for many. The most recent update reveals that 33,682 visas were issued via this route, with just a negligible rejection rate of 0.86%.
Furthermore, the lengthy processing time and high rejection rate in the United States and Canadian routes appear to be an advantage. As the UK becomes increasingly accessible, applicants to those countries face more unpleasant wait times. Last year, 357,839 (80.16%) of 446,422 U.S. F1 student visa decisions were approved, while 88,583 (19.84%) were denied. As for Canada, where country of origin seems to determine approval rates, Nigerians, Pakistanis, and some other nationals experienced as high as over 60% rejection rate. In contrast, the UK route had just a 3.27% rejection rate and a massive 95.5% approval rate. Given these facts, an increasing number of applicants presently consider it as the most realistic of the three top countries.
Students from the European Union who want to study in the UK must now apply for a visa and pay foreign tuition fees which could be up to £40,000 per year in some schools. This has led many students from the region to look elsewhere within Europe. EU student applications to UK institutions dropped by over 40% in 2021. Despite the significant drop, however, the increasing number of students from outside the zone is more than enough to make up for the difference.
It is expected, however, that the resurgence will have effects on the British economy. It is hard to say whether a large inflow of students has a detrimental impact, but there’s a notion that immigration generally has unintended consequences for a country’s economic and social life. For instance, there is a link between migration and the nationwide price increase in real estate. This, together with other costs of living, may also affect overseas students. A July poll by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that 96% of students were cutting down on expenses on food, transport, and course materials.
According to the survey, “a third of students [live] on less than £50 a month after paying rent and expenses” due to the rising cost of living. Some students have had to resort to using food banks and reduce the number of times they do laundry. Although international students are required to have a certain amount for a year’s living expenditures, the rising cost of things is eating deep into their budget and may subject some to financial difficulties. Because of the scarcity of accommodation, many students live in distant areas from their campuses, thereby spending more on transportation. Some are forced to stay in Airbnb for months after arriving with their families. Cases like these automatically disrupt their financial plans and could subject some to homelessness.
On the bright side, the surge has proven beneficial to both parties. International student migration has attracted substantiable funds to the country. A London Economics (LE) published a report showing that the 2018–2019 class of overseas students positively impacted the economy to the tune of £25.9 billion. The research, apart from tuition payment, considered other factors like money spent by students’ relatives during visits to the UK. With the ongoing rise in visa approvals, there is bound to be an increase in the overall revenue for the government.
The United Kingdom will remain an attractive destination for students since it meets certain qualities that distinguish it from other places. A UCAS research found that excellent academic reputation, cultural variety, and friendliness were among the major attractions for international students coming to the UK.
The UK government and educational institutions have a responsibility to provide a supportive environment for the increasing community of foreign students. Many also want more information and help in important areas like finding a job, finding a place to live, and securing financial aid, as shown in the UCAS survey. Meeting these needs would help the students make the most of their resources and time and help the UK maintain its recently reclaimed top position in the extremely competitive but highly profitable international student market.
The writer is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service (IAS) a UK-based law firm that helps international students and other immigrant communities move to and settle in the UK.