The research – which draws on data produced by HESA earlier this year – shows a 1% decline in the number of international students entering postgraduate courses at English higher education institutions (HEIs) between 2010-11 and 2012-13, which has seen double digit growth in previous years.
“These figures confirm what many of us have been saying for some time about a slowdown in recruitment, largely as a direct result of visa restrictions”
Meanwhile, growth in international undergraduate entrants has slowed down considerably to 3% from an annual increase of 10% between 2007-08 and 2010-11.
The fall in international students supports concerns that the UK’s hardline visa policy and determination to decrease immigration numbers has had a damaging effect on the education sector.
“These figures confirm what many of us have been saying for some time about a slowdown in recruitment, largely as a direct result of visa restrictions, after many years of impressive growth,” Dominic Scott, CEO of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), told The PIE News.
“And they are in stark contrast to many being used by the Home Office to suggest that visa applications for university students are increasing – and in particular, they like to say, to Russell Group universities,” he added.
The raise of the annual tuition fee cap from £3,465 to £9,000 – which affects domestic and EU students – in September 2012 is at least partly to blame for the 23% drop in EU student numbers, according to the report.
It also notes that 53% of all international enrolments are new entrants as higher education courses in England are usually shorter than in other countries.
“English higher education institutions have to work harder to replenish overseas student numbers each year,” the report says.
The falling numbers of South Asian students – including those from Indian and Pakistani – at both undergraduate and postgraduate level is an area of particular concern and have been attributed to tough visa restrictions, especially when the US has reported a boom in graduate enrolments from the region.
This drop, coupled with an increase in the number of entrants from China, means that there are now almost as many Chinese students as there are domestic students in full-time postgraduate taught Masters programmes – making up 23% and 26% respectively.
In-cycle statistics not collected by HESA did point to a slight recovery
However, on a positive note, the report shows that demand for transnational education (TNE) from UK providers continues to grow, with enrolments up 5% in 2012-13 to 24,500 students – almost a quarter residing in South-East Asia.
And Janet Ilieva, Head of the HEFCE Observatory, also indicated that in-cycle statistics (HESES and HEIFES, not collected by HESA) pointed to a slight recovery too.
The statistics could serve to influence discussion around a new immigration bill currently being debated in the UK Parliament that could introduce a number of measures affecting international students, including an annual NHS levy.
Critics of the bill say it creates new barriers to international students at the same time that the UK’s global competitors are welcoming them with open arms.
“If the UK wants to fulfil its potential in this growth area, we need policies to attract qualified international students to the UK,” said Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK. “The quality of our universities must be matched by the quality of welcome we provide to students.”