Changes to the UK immigration system are one of the main challenges facing the higher education sector in Britain, it has been suggested.
A recent report from accountancy firm Grant Thornton revealed that restrictions on Tier 4 UK visas are conspiring to threaten the income of many major British universities.
The changes come as fees for local students are on the rise, forcing higher education establishments to work harder to encourage young Britons to continue with their studies. If they are unsuccessful, the drop in income from overseas students could have a significant impact on the sector.
According to the latest figures, overseas income fees were an important contributor to the £811 million surpluses generated by the sector in 2009-10; which were more than double the £345 million generated in 2008-09.
Indeed, the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that there were 37.2 per cent more non-UK domicile undergraduate students enrolled in courses for the 2009-10 year in comparison to the figures from 2005-06. This compared to an overall increase in undergraduates of 7.1 per cent and UK domicile students rose by just 5.1 per cent.
Earlier this year, the Scottish Affairs Committee warned that the restrictions on UK visas for students could damage the wider Scottish economy. The committee suggested that the impact would be disproportionate in Scotland due to the “largely insignificant” abuse of the system north of the border at the moment and the fact that the country's universities draw a “disproportionately large number of overseas students” in comparison to the UK as a whole.
Ian Davidson, chairman of the group, told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: “Overseas students do actually contribute an enormous amount to the Scottish economy, we estimate it's about £0.5bn.”