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UK universities hit by fall in overseas students taking up postgraduate places

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The number of international students taking up postgraduate places at UK universities has fallen sharply, according to commercial data that sparked further warnings about the financial health of the higher education sector.

The figures from Enroly, used to manage one in three offers to overseas students, showed a 37 per cent drop in the number of international offers for UK postgraduate courses in January 2024 compared with January last year.

University leaders warned that the findings, based on Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) documents issued by universities to support visa applications for about 40,000 students, sounded an alarm bell for the sector.

The data offered the first broad statistical snapshot of postgraduate enrolments since a recent toughening of government migration policy.

Last year Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a ban on masters students bringing family members to the UK following concerns that the system was being abused by some education institutions.

Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of Universities UK, which represents more than 140 universities, said the Enroly data painted a “stark and concerning” picture for the wider sector.

“Its findings are further confirmation that policy changes by the government are already having a significant impact on international student demand — and we are now at serious risk of an overcorrection,” she said.

The sector is also facing other headwinds to international recruitment, including a currency crisis in Nigeria and increased competition from rival markets such as Canada, the US and Australia that have bounced back strongly after Covid-19 shutdowns.

In 2019 the government’s International Education Strategy set a target of attracting 600,000 international students and delivering annual educational exports of £35bn.

The number of international students studying in the UK grew from 500,000 in 2018-19 to 680,000 in 2021-22, the last year for which there was complete data.

The Department for Education said that since applications continued to September it was too early to draw conclusions about enrolment numbers for the 2024-25 academic year.

The Enroly data pointed towards a divergence between postgraduate and undergraduate international applicants.

In January, the number of CAS issued for undergraduate courses was 23 per cent higher than at this point last year, according to Enroly data.

Similarly, earlier this month, data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showed undergraduate international applications were 0.7 per cent higher than the previous year as of January — though most undergraduate applications from overseas students come later in the year.

UK universities are increasingly reliant on international students to make ends meet. Non-EU overseas student fees accounted for a fifth of total university income in 2022, data from Higher Education Statistics Agency showed. Most overseas students come to the UK for postgraduate courses.

Tim Bradshaw, the chief executive of the Russell Group of elite universities, said the early data suggested that the government’s policies were affecting the UK’s attractiveness as a study destination.

“This is a shame as the UK is a fantastic place for international students to study. There will be knock-on consequences for university finances too,” he added.

CAS numbers were 70 per cent lower for Nigerian students and 33 per cent lower for Indian students across all levels of study when compared with January 2023, according to Enroly. Those countries had been both strong growth markets since 2018.

Rachel Hewitt, the head of MillionPlus, which represents former vocational colleges and polytechnics that became universities in 1992, said the drop in deposits on such a scale had “serious implications” for all tiers of UK universities leading to losses that would further stretch university budgets. 

The education department said the higher education sector had received financial support of nearly £6bn a year in addition to £10bn a year in tuition fee loans for domestic students.

“We are fully focused on striking the right balance between acting decisively to tackle net migration, which we are clear is far too high, and attracting the brightest students to study at our universities,” it added.

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