Will demand for the UK surge now?

With the uncertainty around the Graduate Route finally over, international applications for the UK could skyrocket as Canada and Australia restrict numbers and pent-up demand from key source markets is released.

UK government and industry stakeholders have repeatedly insisted that the recent changes to the student visa system are robust enough to limit future growth.

The MAC review stated “the evidence suggests that the change in dependants policy has already substantially contributed to reduced international student recruitment”, highlighting a 63% reduction in the number of course deposits paid for the September 2024 intake as evidence.

The latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics also show that net migration has dropped by 10% since 2022, and there has been a 25% drop in student visa applications for September 2024.

But has the government missed the point? And should the sector keep up the clamour to remove international students from the net migration count completely?

The limiting factor for UK demand has not just been the ban on dependants, visa and NHS surcharge hikes or salary thresholds – it has been the uncertainty. Now that has been removed, could the UK sector experience an almighty upswing?

That would be ironic given the government has focused so heavily on the role of international students and graduates in net migration, and many universities have already been forced to make deep cuts because of the projected shortfall in enrolments.

The last 18 months have been dominated by the government repeatedly chopping and changing prime ministers, cabinet, and policy – playing politics with the UK higher education system.

Meanwhile, leading voices of the sector such as Chancellor of University of Birmingham Lord Bilimoria have campaigned tirelessly for acknowledgement of the value of the post-study access to the labour market.

International students have been watching and waiting, unable or unwilling to invest in the UK amid such uncertainty. They’ve been biding their time. They may not have wanted to definitively access the UK labour market but they expected assurance this would be possible so they could recoup the significant investment into UK education, accommodation and living costs.

Home secretary James Cleverly first mentioned a review of the Graduate Route in the House of Commons back in early December 2023, nearly four months earlier than setting out the specific terms of reference for MAC.

In response, conversion rates for the January intake plummeted.

One of the biggest declines came from Nigeria , the biggest source of dependant visa applications. The government was quick to point out that the ban on dependants was clearly ‘working for the British people”.

No mention, however, of the prolonged collapse of the Naira or the cost-of-living crisis in the UK over the same timeframe.

The true impact of the dependants policy change will only be known once the UK becomes affordable again for Nigerians – many of whom are currently struggling to pay their tuition fees or deposits.

The UK Home Office has said the Graduate Route will remain “under review” but it is clear that it won’t be changed before the upcoming election or the early stages of any new government. Prospective students can once again feel reassured.

The news that post-study work rights have been protected will now be amplified all over the world, with the clear message – the UK is open for business.

But the same cannot be said for the UK’s competitors.

Canada has introduced a two-year cap on international study permits with immediate effect, curbing numbers nationally at approximately 360,000 authorised study permits a year – a reduction of 35% on 2023 approval rates.

Australia has conducted its own national higher education and immigration reviews, resulting in tighter restrictions on student movement once onshore. The government has been quoted as saying it wishes to reduce net migration of students and temporary workers down to 250,000 by 2024-25 (a big shift down from 548,000 in September 2023).

Together, this could equate to more than 300,000 international students who would ordinarily have chosen Australia or Canada, now looking for an alternative study destination as soon as September 2024 – with the US, and possibly now the UK, being the forerunners.

The UK could be set for an Indian summer.

If the shift in demand during the pandemic is anything to go by, when Australia closed its borders while the UK remained open – then the news that the UK’s Graduate Route “will remain” could be rocket fuel for international student recruitment in the coming months.

"Collected from The PIE News"