Universities are seeing falls of more than 30 per cent in applications from India in the first signs that foreign students are being put off coming to Britain by the government’s crackdown on migration.
Many of the candidates are instead expected to take up places in Canada, Australia and Europe where student visa policies are becoming more liberal as they compete with Britain for the booming market in international students.
The government has pledged to reduce net immigration to “tens of thousands” and experts believe this cannot be done without deep cuts to the 298,000 or more non-European Union students coming to British universities and colleges. They are Britain’s biggest source of migrants from outside the EU.
Last week Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University and president of Universities UK, wrote to David Cameron warning that changes to visa rules, including tight restrictions on the ability of foreign students and graduates to work in Britain, could cost the UK much of the £5 billion ($8bn) that students pay in tuition fees.
Thomas said in his letter that in China and India, Britain was increasingly seen as “putting up barriers to entry” and added: “The UK seems to be telling the world it doesn’t welcome international students.” He acknowledges the government has a manifesto commitment to meet, but has called for students to be excluded from the migration target.
Britain is second only to America in the world higher education market but is slipping as other countries free up their rules for student visas. Although undergraduate applications from outside the EU have increased this year when postgraduate numbers are also included, some universities have already seen falls.
Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University in Birmingham, said it had experienced a “dramatic” slump in applications from India, which were usually about 1000 a year but have fallen to 650 for 2012. “They believe the situation is much friendlier in Australia, the US and Canada — other places where they can learn in English,” said King.
Middlesex and Sunderland are among other universities seeing falls in applications from India. The declines are greatest in countries with strong English language media that pick up quickly on Britain’s immigration rows. Numbers from Nigeria are also down at many universities. King warned there was a risk of foreign students feeling “ostracised” by the lengths to which universities now have to go to keep track of them.
Aston has introduced a requirement for personal tutors to keep signed records of meetings with students so the UK Border Agency can be shown proof that a student is taking part in a course. To avoid singling out foreign students, those from Britain are also monitored. Other universities have introduced cards for students to swipe into lectures.
Kushan Banerjee, 26, from Calcutta, who has just finished a master’s course in marketing at Birmingham University, is now working as a data analyst in the city to pay off his debts.
“As of April the post-study work visa has gone,” he said. “I was lucky, I applied in 2010. If I would have been in India and had heard they had stopped the post-study visa then I would not have applied and come here. Any student taking a bank loan can only pay it back if they have a proper job, not a job at a chippy. It’s never going to attract students now.”
He added: “We are running the economy by paying £12,000 a year and it makes me laugh when they were moaning about the £3000 fee going up. I’m very happy they have increased it.” Damian Green, the immigration minister, said: “There is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK and our reforms are not stopping them.”