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Breaking down UK student visa data


By Jeremy Chan


The UK is currently experiencing a rebound in international student demand, led by China and India. Issuances of tier-4 study visas grew 16 percent overall in 2019 over the previous year, the fastest rate of growth in at least a decade. All told, the UK has issued a quarter million tier-4 study visas* in the last 12 months, the highest figure since 2010. This analysis takes a deeper look at the key takeaways from the latest UK data. 


Overall, tier-4 issuance to 19 different countries grew by double digits in 2019, compared with only seven markets that saw double digit decreases a year earlier. Moreover, China and India, the UK’s two largest student markets, were among the 10 fastest-growing markets and accounted for 90 percent of all growth over this period. This is likely unsustainable in the long run.   


As indicated in our latest report, the growth in new visa issuances has also exacerbated existing imbalances. Of particular concern, Chinese students now receive nearly half (46 percent) of all tier-4 visas issued worldwide, up from 13 percent as recently as 2010. The latest data indicates UK education institutions are exploring new markets in a nascent effort to diversify their international student populations, but they continue to remain over-reliant on two markets for growth. 


* Excludes tier-4 dependent applicants and child applicants.

A note on the methodology

This analysis takes a deeper look at the latest visa figures for the UK – current through the third quarter of 2019 – and draws out a few key insights within the data. Study visas issued during the July-September period are the most significant because they represent the lion’s share of all international students enrollments in the UK, as most academic programs commence in the autumn. The third quarter data therefore give us the clearest and most current picture of the state of international demand for UK education in the 2019-20 academic year. 


The following insights are based solely on tier-4 visas issued to students sponsored by an accredited education institution in the UK. This analysis does not include issuances of tier-4 visas to dependents of these students, nor does it include visas issued to child applicants. Tier-4 visa data also excludes students from the European Economic Area, who do not require a visa to study in the UK. Lastly, this analysis assumes that nearly every student who receives a tier-4 visa can be reasonably expected to enroll in a UK education institution. 


Takeaway #1: Growth in tier-4 visas fastest in a decade

The number of tier-4 student visas issued through the third quarter of 2019 is the highest since 2010, totalling nearly 250,000 total issuances. China now makes up 46 percent of all tier-4 issuances, up from 13 percent less than a decade ago.  India, on the other hand, has fallen from first place in 2010 to a distant second today, and now represents less than one quarter of the size of the Chinese student market.  However, India has begun to close the gap, with tier-4 issuances to Indian students growing three times faster than those for Chinese students in 2019. 


Led by China and India, growth in total tier-4 issuances around the globe is faster than at any point in the last decade. After flatlining from 2012 to 2016, the overall number of tier-4 student visas returned to growth in 2017 and has picked up momentum in 2019. Total issuances of tier-4 visas are up 16 percent from the same period in 2018, and the fastest growing markets are broadly distributed across the globe. 


What it means

The UK education market has the wind at its back. With the reinstatement of the post-study work visa in 2019, growth in international student demand should remain strong into 2020 and beyond. Interestingly, the return to growth in tier-4 visa issuance since late 2016 corresponds with the Brexit referendum in the UK, suggesting that UK education remains attractive to international students despite the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s likely exit from the European Union. 


Takeaway #2: Interest in UK education up across the globe


Ten overseas markets saw tier-4 visa issuance grow by more than 20 percent in 2019, and another nine markets expanded by more than 10 percent. In particular, South Asia, Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa each hosted at least three of the 15 fastest-growing markets in 2019 (minimum 200 visa issuances). Most notably, however, the UK’s two largest student markets -- China and India -- were also among the 10 fastest growing in 2019, accounting for the vast majority of total growth in new issuances. 


Conversely, only seven overseas markets declined by double digits in 2019 and none by more than 15 percent. Among the 15 fastest slowing overseas markets, only Hong Kong is also among the UK’s 10 largest sending markets. In other words, the UK is managing to develop new international markets while retaining its existing ones. 

What it means

The UK is succeeding in discovering new pockets of demand across the globe, but fully 90 percent of the growth in tier-4 issuance in 2019 was attributable to China and India alone. The UK education sector’s long-term success depends on boosting the share of growth that comes from other markets. 


Takeaway #3: As South Asia goes, so goes the UK

After acting as a net drag on UK student visa issuance from 2011-16, the South Asia region has seen a resurgence since 2017. This is a dramatic reversal from the first half of the decade, when issuance of tier-4 visas to students from South Asia shrank by as much as 60 percent year-on-year. The South Asia region as a whole has grown every quarter since the end of 2016 and expanded by nearly 48 percent overall in the last year. Coincidentally, the UK has seen its worldwide issuance of tier-4 visas surge just as the South Asia region has returned to growth.


Two countries from South Asia are leading the way: India, which accounted for 30 percent of all growth in tier-4 visas issued by the UK in 2019; and Nepal, which more than doubled its number of tier-4 recipients from 2018 to 2019.  All told, every major South Asia market grew by at least 4.1 percent in the last year.   


What it means

Despite South Asia’s resurgence, each market from the region still receives far fewer tier-4 visas than it did in the early 2010s. However, many visa recipients from that earlier period were vocational students who never enrolled in higher education. In 2011, for example, fewer than 40 percent of tier-4 visa issuances to Indian students were for higher education institutions*; in 2019, that figure was greater than 95 percent. The data suggests that there is considerably more road to run in the region for the UK.


* This includes all tier-4 visa categories, including those for dependents and children, as well as visa extensions.


Takeaway #4: Growing dependence on China and India

Even as the UK enjoys the fastest growth in tier-4 issuances in at least a decade, it has become increasingly reliant on two markets in the process. China and India accounted for 57 percent of all visa issuances in 2019, up from 36 percent in 2010. The latest growth figures for these two markets indicate that the UK’s international student population may become even more unbalanced in the years ahead.


As the portion of tier-4 visas issued to Chinese students has more than tripled over the last decade, the relative importance of other major markets has fallen. In fact, except for the United States, which saw its share of tier-4 visas remain steady from 2010 to 2019, all non-Chinese markets in the top 10 in 2010 received a smaller share of tier-4 visas in 2019.


Overall, seven of the UK’s top 10 visa recipient markets in 2010 were also among the ten largest in 2019. Notably, however, three South Asia countries (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal) have dropped off the list and been replaced by three other markets from nearby Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Thailand).


What it means

The UK issued a similar number of tier-4 visas in 2010 and 2019, but its international student population has become less diverse over time. Two countries now make up more than half of all tier-4 visa issuances. What’s more, the rapid growth in visa issuances in India in 2019 suggests that UK education institutions may simply be substituting the Chinese student market for the Indian one. In other words, the UK will likely grow even more top heavy in the years ahead.


Our latest report on China shows that this does not necessarily need to be the case. Canada and Australia are growing their international student populations at rates nearly comparable with the UK, while simultaneously diversifying their sending markets. Time will tell whether the UK can manage to accomplish that same feat.

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