29/11/2011 07:08 GMT | Updated 28/01/2012 05:12 GMT

The Future of International Students in the UK

The landscape of the UK higher education system has gone through a huge process of change over the past year and the effects this change will bring are still largely unknown. One group of students who face increasing uncertainty over their position in the system are foreign students. With international student visas becoming harder to obtain and EU students facing the same increased fees as UK students, many feel that overseas students are being marginalised.

A recent study (Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education) showed that international student numbers have increased hugely in the last decade, but as the new rules are introduced, the real question is whether this trend can continue.

Increased Tuition Fees

There are a number of issues to be considered when addressing this question. First of all, there is the fact that EU students, just like British students, are facing the new £9,000 a year tuition fees from 2012 onwards. This sudden tripling of the fees will inevitably make European students think twice about coming to study in the UK, especially when it is already more expense and effort to study outside of their own country.

However, as higher education body Universities UK points out, there is a precedent for increased fees that can help predict the reaction to these new increases. When tuition fees were first introduced in 1998, there was a dip in home/EU student applications, before the numbers quickly recovered the following year and continued to rise. It was a similar story six years later when the fees were increased to £3,000. Whilst this by no means guarantees the same will happen again, it does suggest that it is not unreasonable to believe that a similar outcome may result this time around.

Restricted Visas

The second important change is one that is worrying non-EU students across the world- new visa restrictions. Over the past 12 months, Theresa May has announced various new policies on student visas, with the aim of meeting government promises to reduce immigration. Regulations on initial student visas are now much tighter, whilst international students will also find it far tougher to gain a post-study work visa.

However, Universities UK maintains that international students should not be concerned by these changes. On questioning them about the new visa regulations, the organisation appeared remarkably confident:

"The changes the government have made will have little or no consequence for overseas students. The changes see no cap placed on the number of international students who genuinely wish to come to the UK to study and who meet the requirements. Under the changes, everyone who legitimately wants to come and study in the UK can still do so - this is a point that has been widely misunderstood." Universities UK

Indeed, the real worry appears to be over the miscommunication of the new regulations. Abroad, just like in the UK, it is headline grabbing figures about the number of student visas being cut by 80,000 that are making the news. Such headlines are not properly explained, and a sense of uncertainty and confusion grows amongst students in India, China and the US.

Early Figures

However, judging by the early applications figures released by UCAS on Monday, it seems this confusion is no match as a deterrent as cold, hard cash. EU students are being expected to pay an extra £6,000 each year and the number of applicants is down 13% on this time last year. In contrast, non-EU students (who have been paying over £10,000 in fees for years) appear to be undeterred by the new visa restrictions, with applications up 13%.

However, whilst these give an early indication, there is no guarantee that such trends will continue for this year's applications, let alone for those over the next five years. For all the speculation and predictions, ultimately only time will tell how foreign students react to the shifting UK higher education system.