The Conservative party’s stringent immigration policies are posing a significant risk to UK universities, potentially driving them towards increased reliance on students from China to avoid financial instability, according to Chris Skidmore, a former universities minister.

Skidmore highlighted the detrimental impact of recent restrictions on international student visas and threats to revoke the “graduate route” work visas, arguing that these measures undermine the government’s education strategy and efforts to diversify university recruitment beyond China to countries like India and Nigeria.

The implementation of a two-year visa for international students after graduation, introduced in 2019 to attract talent and facilitate employment opportunities, is now under scrutiny following directives from the home secretary to review it for potential misuse. Skidmore emphasized the adverse consequences of altering this policy abruptly, particularly given its significance as a manifesto commitment.

Expressing concern over the potential economic repercussions, Skidmore cautioned against the Conservative party’s apparent shift towards restricting international student inflow, urging a more measured approach to avoid destabilizing a sector that plays a vital role in the country’s economy.

Against the backdrop of strained UK-China relations, universities have been advised to prepare for geopolitical upheavals that could disrupt the flow of students from China. Skidmore, as chair of the International Higher Education Commission, emphasized the urgent need for universities to diversify their international recruitment strategies to reduce dependence on a few key countries.

Data reveals a disproportionate reliance on Chinese students for tuition fee income at leading British universities, with estimates suggesting that about 25% of total tuition fee revenue for Russell Group institutions comes from Chinese students alone. The frozen domestic tuition fees and unrestricted international fees have contributed to this overreliance, driven by the perceived stability of the Chinese student market.

The issue extends beyond the Russell Group, with projections indicating that half of higher education funding will be derived from international student revenue by 2026. Moreover, the majority of higher education providers would face budget shortfalls if international student numbers were to decline gradually or suddenly.

Responding to these concerns, a government spokesperson underscored the importance of striking a balance between managing net migration and attracting top-tier international students. The spokesperson cited the recent commissioning of an independent review of the graduate route visa to safeguard against abuse and ensure alignment with the UK’s economic interests.