International students worth £28.8 billion to the UK economy, report estimates

Universities in London, Scotland and the south-east of England collectively recruit the largest share of international students

With the latest figures from Ucas suggesting that the number of international students accepted into UK universities has fallen by 19% this year, a new report compiled by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) warns that each yearly intake is worth £28.8 billion to the UK economy.

The Hepi study concludes that international students are a net economic benefit of £25.9 billion to the UK if the cost of their stay, put at £2.9 billion, is taken into account.

According to Ucas, the number of international students that have accepted places at UK universities is down by 19%. Acceptances have risen 5% among non-EU students, but the numbers coming from within the EU have plummeted by more than half (56%).

The report published in association with Universities UK International (UUKi) – The costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK economy – uses research from London Economics and figures from the 2018/19 academic year. The number of first-year international students has grown from 177,000 in 2006/07 to 273,000 in 2018/19: 93% study full-time, and 58% are postgraduates.

London, Scotland and the south-east of England account for the largest share of international students, with 70,000, 30,000 and 29,000 respectively. Universities in Northern Ireland, Wales and the north-east of England recruit the fewest, with 3,500, 12,000 and 13,000, respectively.

The report disaggregates the figures by Westminster constituency. Every UK constituency is a net beneficiary of international students, but cities and urban areas derived the most benefits. Sheffield Central gained £290 million from the presence of international students, the most of any constituency.

The remaining top 10 – Nottingham South, Holborn and St Pancras, Newcastle upon Tyne East, East Ham, Cambridge, West Ham, Manchester Central, Oxford East and Liverpool Riverside – are all university constituencies. Other areas represented in the top 20 include areas of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Glasgow, Leeds and Portsmouth.

Earlier this week, UUKi warned that the successful delivery of the new graduate visa route is vital to maintaining the global competitiveness of the UK higher education sector.

In the last decade, the UK has lost market share in 17 of the 21 countries with the highest annual international student recruitment figures, like Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India – all former bedrocks of UK international student recruitment.

To make the most of these benefits, we need to provide a warm welcome, ensure our educational offer remains competitive and help international students secure fulfilling careers after study
– Nick Hillman, Hepi

The chief executive of UUKi Vivienne Stern warned on 6 September urgent action was needed “to recover our position in a range of countries where the UK used to be a first or second-choice destination but isn’t any more”.

Alongside urging the government to make a success of the new graduate route, the UUKi report makes a series of recommendations, including reducing financial barriers with more “innovative funding opportunities”, more overseas promotion of UK universities and more support for English language ability.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said the figures confirm that higher education “is one of the UK’s greatest export earners”, but added that the value of international students was more than financial. “They also bring educational benefits by making our campuses more diverse and exciting places to be,” he said.

He continued: “To make the most of these benefits, we need to provide a warm welcome, ensure our educational offer remains competitive and help international students secure fulfilling careers after study.”

“While there has been a growing realisation of the tremendous social and cultural benefits of international students, this study provides a stark reminder of their financial importance to communities across the UK, economic recovery and the levelling up agenda,” said Stern.

“We now need fresh ideas and stronger momentum to achieve the UK government’s international education strategy target of attracting at least 600,000 international students every year by 2030 and the good this will bring to everyone,” she added.

Read more: One in ten international students will cancel UK study if red list rules apply – QS survey

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