Posted on 23 May '23

Update: what Will the UK Visa Changes Mean for Postgraduate Recruitment?

On Tuesday 23 May the UK Home Office announced changes to international visas taking effect from January 2024. I've updated this blog (originally published Thursday 18 May) to reflect the new information and clarify exactly what's happening.

Key details

  • International students on taught courses will no longer be able to bring dependents to study with them
  • International students will also no longer be able to switch directly from a student visa to a skilled worker visa prior to graduation
  • Both of these changes will take place from January 2024 and apply to visas granted for the 24/25 academic year

The story has been covered by the BBC and The PIE amongst others. You can also read the original ministerial statement.

To say this is a big issue for PG recruitment is a bit of an understatement, but it's still tricky to predict exactly how things will shake out.

Thankfully, we saw this one coming and put some questions into our Pulse survey back in March. So I can, at least, tell you what different audiences think of this change.

First though, let's clarify what's actually on being pulled off the table.

Removing dependent visas – what's changing in practice

The Home Office has chosen to remove the right to bring dependents on taught courses. This is slightly different to the originally trailed plan to restrict dependents on courses lasting one year or less, but the impact is essentially the same in so far as PGT programmes are most affected (taught Masters recruit substantially more international students with dependents than undergraduate programmes do).

Note that this doesn't affect students on programmes 'currently designated' as research programmes.That 'currently' is the official wording and I suspect it might be included to prevent universities reclassifying some programmes (such as 'taught' MRes).

Students on MPhil and PhD programmes will still be able to bring dependents.

What else is changing?

The only other immediate change is the ban on switching from study to work visas. This will affect all international students, not just those on taught programmes.

Other planned changes include:

  • Reviewing the amount of maintenance money required by dependents (presumably to increase it)
  • Allowing the 'best and brightest' students to bring dependents to 'world-leading universities' (this sounds like a future multi-tier visa system, probably based on university rankings)

Crucially, no changes are being made to the Graduate Route. Masters and PhD students will still be able to stay for two or three years on a post-study-work-visa but new dependents can't join at this stage (they need to already be on the main applicant's student visa). There were reports that DFE wanted to change this, but nothing has been announced yet.

Why does this matter for PGT recruitment?

The number of student-dependents has increased substantially in recent years. Of the 500,000 student visas issued in 2019, 135,788 were for dependents; compared to just 16,047 dependent visas in 2022 (see the FT for the full numbers and graphics).

This is due to a massive shift in international student origins and demographics – something you're likely to be well aware of if you work in PGT recruitment.

Growth has come from countries like India and especially Nigeria, where students are far more likely to bring dependents than their peers from China (who previously dominated UK international recruitment).

Here's how much this behaviour differs, based on Home Office data for 2022 (compared to our Share of Search at the end of the same period):

Whereas roughly one dependent arrives for every 100 Chinese students, the ratio for India is 1:3 and for Nigeria it's 1:1.

What impact will it actually have?

That's harder to say.

We know that, when international students can bring dependents with them, many do.

But that doesn't mean this is their main driver for UK study or that losing the ability to bring dependents will stop all students coming (it clearly won't).

Some won't be affected by this change. Others may seek to have their dependents join them later via a Skilled Worker visa.

The most we can do is ask prospective students what difference these changes might make to their study plans:

Above is data comparing impact by region, based on our Pulse responses since March.

It's a similar and significant impact for both Africa (inc. Nigeria) and South Asia (inc. India), with 2/3 saying that removing dependent visas would make them less likely to come.

We also see that Western Asia (inc. Iran, Turkey and the UAE – other potential growth audiences) actually cares more about this change, whilst Europe, unsurprisingly, cares a lot less.

If we drill down to individual countries (something I can only do where the sample size is sufficient) we see signficant variety within Africa and South Asia:

India and Nigeria are still fairly similar, though the latter feels more strongly about this issue (7 percentage points more likely to say the removal of dependents would make them 'much less likely' to study in the UK).

Pakistan and Ghana are interesting. These are the two second-fastest growing countries in our Share of Search data, but they don't correlate with India or Nigeria on this issue; a reminder of just how broad and varied international recruitment is becoming.

What about PGR?

International PhD students aren't losing dependent visas and, in any case, the most affected audiences don't have such an outsized impact on current PhD recruitment (there were 2,040 Indian and 1,740 Nigerian PGR students in the UK in 21/22 – comparable to the 1,790 from Germany or the 1,875 from Italy).

That said, removing dependent visas would actually be a bigger issue for PhD recruitment:

This time there is a much bigger impact for Africa; a reminder of the important differences between PGT and PGR students.

Predictions – what might happen

Our Pulse data confirms that this change will (obviously) have an impact on PGT recruitment, but the shape of that impact isn't necessarily simple. There are also a few other variables to factor in.

Here are some possible scenarios:

The pipeline shrinks, but recruitment impact is mitigated

This makes lots of optimistic assumptions. As interest from some of these audiences is so high (Africa and South Asia make up around 1/3 of Share of Search for UK PGT right now) we might assume some tolerance before a drop significantly impacts recruitment. We might also assume that some prospective students (without dependents) aren't concerned by the change and/or others decide to wait and bring dependents later (assuming this is possible)

The problem with this is that it rests on all those assumptions and doesn't account for the negative impact of broader rhetoric and the uncertainty changes like this cause for international students.

Students pivot to research programmes

Today's announcements obviously make PhD more appealing but this isn't a simple switch for students to make as the application and funding requirements for a doctorate are clearly very different.

MPhil programmes may be more appealing, particularly where these have relatively affordable fees and less stringent entry requirements (in terms of research proposals and project outcomes). This assumes that universities seek to recruit in this way.

Recruitment shifts to other countries

This time we assume that losses from one geo are balanced out elsewhere.

We're seeing rapid growth in Share of Search for countries like Ghana who also, it seems, are less concerned by the dependent visa changes... but the base numbers are much smaller: Share of PGT Search for Ghana is a quarter of what it is for Nigeria and the gap in enrollments is even bigger (2,675 vs 34,355 in 21/22).

In the short term, at least, this feels fairly naive

So, what can we do?

Well, I think we can try and stay as informed as possible (hopefully this blog helps a little). We can also make the point – as others are – that international students bring significant value to the UK and that cutting dependent visas is a crude way to bring down net migration (whatever you think of the politics).

And we can continue to do our best to reassure prospective students that #WeAreInternational. FindAUniversity certainly are.

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