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UK unis voice concerns on supporting students with dependants

Rising numbers of international students bringing dependants with them to the UK while they embark on their studies is leading to concerns about universities’ ability to support students and their families adequately. 

The number of students with families arriving in the UK is rapidly rising - ensuring local accommodation and schooling means institutions providing more liaison and support. Photo: jacoblund

"Some students are still in Airbnb accommodation, which clearly is not acceptable to them in terms of their experience"

Clear and prompt messaging about accommodation and advice about making preparations a long way in advance is the new modus operandi – universities are not required to provide housing for students arriving with families but are keen to support them.

Nigeria is the leading country for dependant visa applications, with the number of dependants now outnumbering main student applicants from Nigeria in the first half of 2022.

UK government data shows there were 17,761 visas granted to Nigerian dependants, connected to just 14,498 visas granted to students themselves between January and June this year.

“We are seeing a big increase of students with their dependants”

“We are seeing a big increase of students with their dependants joining University of Bradford as our international student population has increased by more than 300% over the past two years,” confirmed Ismat Abu Shihab, director of University of Bradford‘s regional hub in Dubai.

He told The PIE that the university was advising international students on three points:

  • Demand is high, availability of accommodation is low
  • Costs are rising
  • Location is important

“For example, trains from London to Bradford can take four-five hours and cost over £125 a day,” illustrated Abu Shihab. “So we recommend that [students] find accommodation that is less than one hour away from the university to reduce costs and improve the study experience.”

Another university stakeholder, who preferred not to be named, agreed that early intervention was necessary to help solve housing needs and that their institution was working with local landlords on the issue.

They told The PIE that they were tracking issues, which were “manageable” at present.

“But we do understand that there is still a shortage of family housing [in the area] and that some students are still in Airbnb accommodation, which clearly is not acceptable to them in terms of their experience.”

To comply with UKVI regulations, students were meant to live within 50 miles of the institution, they pointed out. With rising numbers, “you might get a situation of students having almost to live beyond that with family members resident in the UK and then commuting”.

The rise in numbers is also putting pressure on local authorities to provide access to schooling for the dependants and plan for new arrivals – most of whom, according to the stakeholder we spoke to – are of primary school age.

They added, “Our messaging to students has been very clear throughout the summer and continues for January that, you know, we are able to provide advice and accommodation for students themselves, but it is not our university’s responsibility to provide housing for families.

“However, we are trying our very best to steer students towards appropriate sources of family accommodation and we are engaging with the local sector.”

Ada Nwokeji, managing director of Drums School Finders, a boutique student counselling business based in Nigeria, confirmed that in some cases, “University staff and universities can’t cope with the number of dependants that are coming into their town”.

Nwokeji continued, “Students are getting confused about what this university’s responsibility is [and what is their own].”

Surging demand in healthcare courses such as nursing or postgraduate subjects such as business or ICT has encouraged mature applicants with dependants to consider relocating their family to the UK while they undertake professional training.

Nwokeji described nursing as “one of the hottest” subjects in demand, especially if it doesn’t require too much experience to secure a place on the course. NHS labour shortages have created more places for international students and workers to enter the profession in the UK.

“At the moment, what we’re finding in the market is that students are not concentrating too much on rankings. They go to any university where they could get the course that they believe will get them a job at the end of the day,” she said.

Speculation is mounting that the UK will introduce a surcharge for visas granted to dependants of sponsored study visa holders.

Latest data reveals a 686% rise in sponsored study visas granted to Nigerians within a 2.5 year timeframe:  from just over 8,000 in 2019 to nearly 66,000 to June 2022.

While the visa application process requires applicants to pay an NHS health surcharge and demonstrate maintenance fees for nine months per dependant, there is no additional charge for other public services that dependants may require such as school access.

When applying for the dependant partner or child visa, each applicant must show they have £845 a month to support themselves if the student is studying in London, and £680 a month if outside the capital.

Dependants are also permitted to work if students are in receipt of a government award and taking a full-time course that is at least six months, or taking a full-time postgraduate course of nine months or longer at an eligible institution.

Nwokeji did not think it would be an insurmountable barrier if an additional charge was to be introduced. “A lot of students are paying for a new life. They’re paying so they can come, study and settle,” she observed. 

While additional costs may be seen as unfair considering the higher tuition fees international students pay compared to domestic students, Nwokeji said it may be welcomed by institutions as a further control measure.

Recent insight reported by admissions service Enroly also showed that the average number of dependants being brought to the UK was now 1.6 per person – but connected to just 11% of the international student population.

“We are currently in the process to trying to understand how many of our own students are in this situation”

This suggests a large number of family units using the dependant visa policy when coming to the UK.

Q3 data, due for release in November 2022, will show further detail across autumn and winter intakes.

Other countries, albeit with much smaller numbers, have followed a similar trend in recent years, with Libya recording 156% growth in dependant visas issued compared to students in 2021.

Guillaume Richard, director of recruitment, admissions and international development at the University of Roehampton said, “It is true that the sector has seen an increase in the number of students travelling with dependants and we are currently in the process to trying to understand how many of our own students are in this situation.

Adding that “this is not data we would have automatically collected in the past,” Richard noted his university is considering additional support that may need to be put in place.

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