22 May 2023

Cracking down on dependents misses the real problem with student migration

By Jess Hilton

The Government says it is looking to curb legal migration by cracking down on student dependents – but the real issue lies elsewhere.

In an effort to tap into the higher educational goldmine, the 2019 International Education Strategy (IES) left the door wide open for exploitation. The more liberal approach to migration it enshrined has turned one-year masters degrees into a ticket to settle in the UK.

The most rapid growth in migrants coming to the UK on study visas is from India and Nigeria. This is partly because the Government listed them as ‘priority countries’ with potential to help achieve the IES goal of increasing our international student population. To make the UK a more appealing place to study, the graduate visa was reintroduced, meaning anyone earning a degree here can stay for the length of their program plus an additional two years, with no requirement to work or pursue further study in that time.

That sounds like an offer you can’t refuse – and given that 230,000 non-EU nationals started masters courses in 2021/22, it looks like many of them think so too. Bear in mind too that the 230,000 figure is an increase of some 90,000 on the preceding academic year and it’s little wonder estimates show net migration has surged.

While some of these students will undoubtedly be engaged in tough courses at reputable universities, many more end up in institutions that are not particularly prestigious, studying for degrees that won’t carry much weight in the job market. Degrees in business and management dominate non-EU masters students’ choices, to the extent that they outnumber British students by over two and a half to one.

In terms of university choices, highly rated Glasgow topped the list in 2021/2022. Further down the list, however, things get more interesting. In second place was the University of Hertfordshire, fourth was Coventry University and seventh the University of Greenwich – ranked 71st, 83rd and 60th respectively in the Times Higher Education university league table. In fact, there were no Russell Group universities in the top 10 choices for masters’ students from three of the five ‘priority countries’. Starker still is the fact that for Indian students there are no Russell Group universities among the top 30 choices, and for Nigerian students, none in the top 50.

This suggests that the decision to study at these universities is not entirely driven by intellectual curiosity. At the University of Hertfordshire, the most popular place for Indians and Nigerians to do a masters, an MSc in Management comes in at a relatively affordable £15,450. Nor are there any exams – 100% of assessment is done on coursework. And in the spirit of ‘recognising that people often need a second chance’ it also accepts borderline 3rd/2:2 undergraduate degrees for admission. It makes one wonder why you would bother paying £28,000 for the same degree at Manchester – unless, of course, academic quality and prestige were never your priorities.

Worryingly, some international students don’t need to even speak English to study here. There are striking similarities between the lists of popular universities for international students and this list of universities that do not require the IELTS (the English language proficiency test) for admission. The courses can’t be that rigorous if you don’t even need to be able to understand what’s going on to pass.

Students from the ‘priority countries’ also disproportionately prefer to relocate to the UK than do the degree from a branch campus or remotely in their home country. Around double the number of Chinese students come to the UK than take part in Transnational Education at home, whereas that number is more than seven times for Nigerians, and more than nine times for Indians. Perhaps their motivation is relocation rather than education.

Another popular institution among international arrivals is Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, ranked 93rd in the UK and around the 1000-1200th mark globally by Times Higher Education. The university boasts a masters student population of just under 5,000, and around 30% of them are from Nigeria, perhaps because they offer an automatic £2000 reduction on fees for Nigerian nationals. 

That is worth noting, given that Nigeria alone accounted for 40% of all dependents brought by foreign students in the 12 months up to June 2022. This influx puts pressure on public services such as schools and the NHS. True, international students pay a health access fee of £470 for themselves and per dependent, but that is only a sliver of the £4,188 spent annually on average per person by the NHS.

Although the Government has plans to prevent dependents from coming here, the rapid expansion of the student population has significant impacts on local communities, particularly on access to an already hugely over-crowded housing market. We simply do not have the means to accommodate tens of thousands of international students whose degrees will add little to our economy in the long run.

The IES was created with good intentions to position the UK as a hub for international learning, but it is not achieving its aim of boosting academic excellence and innovation. The students now coming here are too often ending up in low-grade international education factories studying uncompetitive degrees. It looks far less like an education strategy, and far more like a backdoor immigration channel. For the price of a cheap masters, a plane ticket, and some visa fees, it’s easier than ever to migrate to the UK.

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Jess Hilton is a Research Intern at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.