Results of a recent QS pulse survey of international students suggest that the UK could see a total decrease of 200,000 international students by 2025 as a result of government policy changes around visas for dependents of student visa holders.

Starting January 2024, international students studying in the UK will no longer be allowed to bring their family members with them, except for those enrolled in research-based PhDs and research-based master’s programmes. The new policy is a bid to curb net migration after the number of people granted a visa as dependents of overseas students increased 750%, to 136,000 people since 2019. Government figures show that the top nationalities granted dependent visas were Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Under the new policy, international students will also not be eligible for a Skilled Worker Visa until they complete their studies. This policy aims to discourage students from choosing to study in the UK as a faster route to employment.

Prior to the new policies being announced, in March 2023, QS conducted a pulse survey of 5,000 international students interested in studying in the UK, asking them for their immediate response to the proposed changes to student visa regulations, including the right to bring dependents with them.

The survey revealed that 56% of respondents were not previously aware of any proposed changes. One in four international students stated that they would be less likely to consider the UK as a study destination, while one in five students focused on Russell Group universities said that they would be dissuaded from their original study plans.  Subsequent scenario modelling undertaken by QS predicts the ban could result in a total decrease of 200,000 international students coming to the UK by 2025 and cost the UK up to £10 billion.

QS analysis predicts that the UK’s loss of market share would benefit competitor destinations such as the US, Australia, and Canada, with a 12% average increase in interest in these countries predicted as a result of restrictions to the UK.

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, Nigeria is the UK’s third-largest source market for international students. Additionally, Nigeria has the highest number of dependents associated with the student visa route, with the number of dependents doubling in 2022. Students from India, the UK’s second-largest source of international students, also brought a significant number of dependents in 2022.

Coverage of the visa changes in Nigerian media also confirms that the changes are likely to result in Nigerian students seeking alternative study abroad destinations. The policy change has been criticised as particularly impacting married Nigerian females who are unlikely to pursue postgraduate education in the UK if it means they will be separated from their children and spouse.

While several high-profile UK higher education organisations have expressed disappointment in the ban and the impact it is likely to have on the UK’s international student numbers, The Pie News reports that at an operational level, for many, there is a sense of relief as universities have struggled to provide accommodation for students in general, particularly those with dependents: “The reality is some universities started advising agents months ago to dissuade students who intended to apply with dependants, as they simply could not offer the support needed around accommodation and schooling”.