UK cannot take attractiveness as international student destination ‘for granted’

Britain cannot take its attractiveness as a destination for international students “for granted” following a sharp fall in EU students after Brexit, a report warns.

The total economic benefits of just one year’s intake of incoming international students to the UK economy is estimated to be approximately £28.8 billion, according to an analysis.

The report, by Universities UK International (UUKi) and Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), suggests that every parliamentary constituency in the UK benefits financially from international students.

It comes as international student numbers at UK universities have been affected by the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 and changes to the tuition fee structure for European Union (EU) students after Brexit.

The number of EU students accepted onto undergraduate degree courses is 56% lower this year than at the same time last year, while non-EU international students are up 5%, the latest Ucas data suggests.

The report suggests that the UK’s exit from the EU has “severely affected” EU student recruitment, adding that “the UK cannot take its attractiveness as a study destination for international students for granted”.

UUKi, which represents more than 140 UK higher education institutions globally, and think tank Hepi are calling for more to be done to promote the UK as a welcoming, diverse and accessible study destination.

This could include reducing the financial barriers for international students, supporting the improvement of English language ability or ensuring the success of the new Graduate route.

It comes as vice-chancellors across the country are attending Universities UK’s (UUK) annual conference at Northumbria University on Thursday.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and UUK’s president Professor Steve West will address university leaders at the in-person conference in Newcastle.

The report, which includes research from London Economics, suggests the 2018/19 cohort of international students delivered a net economic benefit of around £25.9 billion to the UK.

On average across all regions, international students make a £40 million net economic contribution to the UK economy per parliamentary constituency, which is equivalent to around £390 per person, it says.

International students in Sheffield, Nottingham, London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Newcastle are among those to deliver the greatest financial contributions.

The contribution to the UK economy of international students in the 2018/19 intake resident in Sheffield Central is £290 million, while in Nottingham South it is £261 million, the report suggests.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “This report confirms higher education is one of the UK’s greatest export earners. The benefits reach every part of the UK, from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

“But international students do not just bring financial benefits. They also bring educational benefits by making our campuses more diverse and exciting places to be.

“To make the most of these benefits, we need to provide a warm welcome, ensure our educational offer remains competitive and help international students secure fulfilling careers after study.”

He added: “The policy environment is, in many respects, more conducive than it was, with the Government gradually becoming more positive about international students. But the current halving in the number of EU students confirms future success cannot be taken for granted.”

Vivienne Stern, director of UUKi, said: “While there has been a growing realisation of the tremendous social and cultural benefits of international students, this study provides a stark reminder of their financial importance to communities across the UK, economic recovery and the levelling up agenda.

“We now need fresh ideas and stronger momentum to achieve the UK Government’s international education strategy target of attracting at least 600,000 international students every year by 2030 and the good this will bring to everyone.”

She added: “But as this research shows, we need to work hard to recover our position in a range of countries where the UK used to be a first or second-choice destination, but isn’t any more.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: “International students are a vital and valued part of our higher education sector and having a proactive global education agenda is more important than ever so that we can recover from the pandemic.

“That is why we published an update to the International Education Strategy, which contained a number of specific commitments to improve the international student journey.

“This Government has also recently opened up the globe to our young people through the Turing Scheme which is committed to making sure students from the UK, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can benefit from studying and working abroad and the exciting and enriching opportunities that brings.”