Indian students received the most study visas in 2022/2023, followed by their Chinese counterparts, as the total number of visas granted to main applicants rose by 2% overall, according to the UK government.
Meanwhile, students and their dependants made up 39% (378,000) of long-term non-EU immigrants to the UK in the year ending June 2023, the Office for National Statistics estimated.
This is an increase of 58,000 students compared to the previous year and is mainly driven by a growth in the proportion of students bringing dependants.
From January 2024, the majority of students will no longer be allowed to bring dependants with them under government regulations to cut net migration.
Students and their dependants also represented a greater proportion of non-EU migrants leaving the UK, making up 58% compared to 50% the previous year.
Overall net migration is estimated to have added 672,000 to the UK population, down 10% from the previous year. However, the 2022 estimation was revised upwards by almost 140,000 people, leading some Conservative MPs to call on the government to take further action to limit legal routes into the UK.
Home secretary James Cleverly reportedly said the figures are a “testament to both our world-leading university sector and our ability to use our immigration system to prioritise the skills we need”.
Harry Anderson, assistant director for policy and global engagement at Universities UK International, said, “In any debate about international student numbers and figures, it is important first and foremost we recognise the vast contribution international students make to the UK; not just economically, but culturally and socially to towns and cities across the UK.
“Politically expedient rhetoric on migration isn’t just seen by voters in the UK, but by potential international students, who are considering the UK but may feel unwelcome from this – thereby depriving ourselves of huge assets to our campuses and wider communities.”
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said net migration was likely to fall in the coming year, mainly due to more international students leaving the country.
“Recent cohorts are more likely to extend their stays”
“While most students are expected to be in the UK only temporarily, there is evidence that recent cohorts are more likely to extend their stays, perhaps due to the graduate route and the opening of the care visa,” she said.
“Given that the UK attracts so many international students, even a small change in the share who remain permanently can have an impact on net migration in the long term.”
UK Study Visa Statistics
The latest figures from the Home Office, released on Thursday, suggest international student growth, excluding dependants, is levelling out after the post-pandemic surges seen last year.
Source: UK Home Office.
The UK granted 486,107 study visas to main applicants in the year ending September 2023, +2% on the previous year. In comparison, the UK granted 77% more study visas in 2022 than it did in 2019 (when figures were unaffected by the pandemic) and 24% more than in 2021.
Indians continued as the leading nationality in 2023, receiving over a quarter of study visas (133,237), a 5% increase on the previous year. They were followed by Chinese students, who received 22% of all study visas (108,978), a -7% decrease.
Chinese and Indian nationals together comprised half of all sponsored study visa grants.
After significant growth in 2021/22, the number of visas issued to Nigerian nationals, the third biggest cohort, levelled out at 51,071 visas (+0.2%).
Pakistan and the US followed to make up the top five student nationalities.
“Recent years have seen significant growth in international students however, as other destinations open up following the pandemic, it’s essential that we guard against complacency,” said Anderson. He added the sector should “work with government to ensure stable and managed growth in international student recruitment”.
In addition, over 150,000 visas were granted to dependants of students in the year ending September 2023.
Around two-thirds (68%) of visas granted to dependants of students were issued to Indians and Nigerians. Although the number of dependants has gone up with the growth in international students, the proportion of students bringing their spouse or children with them has also increased in recent years.
Indians were also the largest group choosing to stay and work in the UK. The Home Office granted post-study work visas to 104,501 former students to September 2023 and Indians made up 43% of these.
In general, analysis from the ONS suggests that more international students are staying and working in the UK under the graduate route, which launched in July 2021.
An estimated 35% of students had left the country permanently at the end of their initial study visa for the 2022/23 academic year compared with 61% in 2019/2020.