Hard Evidence: is immigration policy discouraging foreign students?

Why is the UK so attractive to Chinese students? Asian students via Vitchanan Photography/Shutterstock

As debates continue over the number of foreign students in the UK, there have been accusations from business leaders that the government’s policy of including students in the net migration target has been turning potential students away. So are we seeing a dip in the number of students arriving from outside the EU?

A new set of statistics released by the Higher Education Statistic Agency on the enrolments at UK higher education providers for the academic year 2013-14, clearly illustrates the enduring attraction of the UK within a global education market. UK universities continue to be dominated by students domiciled in the UK, who made up 81% of the student body last year.

But 310,195 – or 13% of all students – came from outside the EU in 2013-14, an increase of 3% on the previous year. This was compared to a decrease of 3% in the number of UK students over the same period. There was hardly any change in the number of EU students – which rose from 125,290 to 125,300.

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The headline statistic concerns the overwhelming importance of China as a source of international students to the UK. As the graph below shows, in 2013-14 there were more first-year students from China studying in the UK than there were from all EU countries combined.

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India is the second-largest provider of international students to the UK after China, but has fallen someway behind in total numbers, with 11,270 first-year places across the UK. There was an 8% drop between 2012-13 and 2013-14 in the number of first year students enrolling from India – and a 12% drop in overall student numbers. This is a difficult statistic to interpret, but Subhadra Roy of Queen Mary University of London, suggests that one factor might be the removal of the post-study work permit option, limiting the amount of income that students can potentially make after graduation.

Smaller countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Singapore are significant for their presence in the top ten of source countries for English higher education providers. Although their numbers are relatively small compared to China, they are significant given their population sizes and experienced some notable increases in numbers between 2012-13 and 2013-14.

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What’s the UK’s attraction?

These figures speak to a trend that has had a significant impact on UK higher education for the past three decades or more – internationalisation.

The importance of the English language should not be under-estimated for these foreign students. English continues to be viewed as the “global language” and Chinese students and their families are particularly attracted to the prospect of exposure to English-accented English. Unaccented English is seen as an important form of embodied cultural capital that facilitates communication in global business circles.

UK universities continue to feature alongside US universities near the top of global university rankings, including those developed in China, such as those compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It is widely recognised that these annual league tables are consulted by prospective international students and influence what is seen as “desirable” in higher education.

So, while Asian universities are climbing up the tables, for as long as UK universities continue to rank highly on these league tables they will continue to be attractive to overseas students.

UK schools and universities also have a presence in China and other parts of East and South-East Asia. According to the Independent Schools Council, there are 39 British schools with satellite or branch campuses overseas. These may be having only a relatively modest impact on enrolments at UK universities, but as the numbers continue to grow, so too will their impact on funnelling students into UK higher education.

League tables aside, UK education continues to have a globally strong symbolic reputation for academic excellence. British education represents a resilient, globetrotting brand with international appeal and recognition – in a way that many higher education institutions in East Asia still do not.

Drivers for Chinese students

The increase each year in the number of students from China attending UK higher education institutions is a little harder to explain, but no doubt relates to the continued growth in middle-class and wealthy families in China, their disposable income, and the enduring symbolic and practical importance of education as a worthwhile expenditure.

Education plays a crucial role in the reproduction of household status. The notion that education is an investment in the future has continued even in times of economic downturn and hardship.

In Malaysia and Singapore, British colonial links and legacies, including tuition in English, have clearly been important in explaining why the UK remains an attractive market for students. Research by I Lin Sin on Malaysian students in the UK has shown a direct link between a UK qualification and “better prospects” attached to material rewards and social status, compared to a qualification obtained in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, it is assumed that UK education is an excellent source of embodied and institutional cultural capital, which can easily be traded for economic capital – employment – in a global economic market. This is particularly thought to be the case for jobs in the private sector.

I Lin Sin also had the following to say on the increase in Mayalsian students to UK universities:

The weakening of the British pound against the Malaysian ringgit in 2013 is most likely to have encouraged the sharp rise in numbers of Malaysians studying in the UK. The favourable exchange rate since the recent UK recession has offered substantial savings for Malaysians studying in the UK. Just before the recession, it was not uncommon to have an exchange rate of GBP1 = 6.90 – 7.1. This made spending an average of more than 20 000 pounds in tuition fees and living costs per academic year uncomfortably expensive and in some cases, economically unfeasible.

Also in 2013, the arrival of UK universities, specifically, Heriot Watt and Reading into transnational education delivery in Malaysia is likely to reinforce confidence and recognition of the already strong UK education brand. Malaysia now hosts five branch campuses of UK universities, four of which were set up in the last three years. The growing dominance of UK international education in Malaysia makes studying physically in the UK all the more attractive for students who can afford it.

So it seems that for now, that the continued growth in the number of Chinese and other East and Southeast Asian students coming to the UK is making up for the drop in students from elsewhere.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.