Why do people come to the UK? To study – GOV.UK

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Published 25 November 2021

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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/immigration-statistics-year-ending-september-2021/why-do-people-come-to-the-uk-to-study
Back to ‘Immigration statistics, year ending September 2021’ content page.
Data relate to the year ending September 2021 and all comparisons are with the year ending September 2020, unless indicated otherwise.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic. A range of restrictions were implemented in many parts of the world, and the first UK lockdown measures were announced on 23 March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the UK immigration system, both in terms of restricting migrant movements to and from the UK and the impact on operational capacity.
Year ending comparisons that follow will reflect the restrictions in place during this period of the pandemic.
This section contains data on:
In the year ending September 2021, there were 428,428 Sponsored study visas granted (to both main applicants and their dependants), 143% (252,327) more than the previous year and 55% (152,077) higher than the year ending September 2019. Of the 428,428 Sponsored visas granted, 51,684 (12%) were under Tier 4 rules and 376,744 (88%) were under the new Student and Child Student routes introduced on the 5th October 2020.
This is the highest annual number of Sponsored study visas granted on record with the substantial increase representing both a recovery from lower numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic but also increases on the pre-pandemic period. This is 39% higher than the previous record of 307,394 which occurred in the year ending June 2010.
Figure 1: Sponsored study visa grants, year ending March 2010 to September 2021
Source: Entry clearance visa applications and outcomes – Vis_D02
Figure 1 shows that Sponsored study visa grants initially peaked in the year ending June 2010. Grants fell a year later until 2012 where they remained broadly level at around 225,000 until 2018. From the year ending September 2018 to the year ending March 2020, sponsored study grants increased sharply to a high of almost 300,000. This was followed by a sharp decrease due to COVID-19, with the year ending September 2020 showing the lowest number of sponsored study grants on record. However, the numbers of students granted a visa have since strongly recovered, and now sit at a new record high of over 428,000 in the year ending September 2021.
Since 1st January 2021, EEA and Swiss (excluding Irish) nationals starting a course require a study visa. There have been 20,774 Sponsored study visa grants to EEA and Swiss students since this date, which is 6% of the total for this period (see section 1.1 for details).
Figure 2: Number of Tier 4 (Sponsored study) visas granted, by month, 2019, 2020 and 2021
Source: Entry clearance visa applications and outcomes – Vis_D02
Figure 2 shows that there were no Sponsored study grants in April and May 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Grants started to recover after May 2020 but remained much lower than the previous year until September 2020. From September, Sponsored study grants were consistently higher for each of the last four months of the year and also into the next year. This is likely to be in part due to applications and grants being displaced to later months as the pandemic forced potential students to adjust their plans. The figure also shows that there was a significant increase in Sponsored study grants in August 2021 and then a further large increase in September, where grants were more than double the number in September 2019.
There are a few possible explanations as to why there has been such a dramatic increase.
Students who either deferred starting a course, took a break from studying and are now resuming, or began a course by distance last year and did not choose to apply for a visa at that point could be increasing in number as they return to in-person educational settings. This could be combined with a further general trend of growth in international students applying for visas to study, as from 2017 until the pandemic there was a strong annual growth in student visas, averaging at approximately 10% per annum over the period. Additionally, changes to immigration rules regarding study visas over this period may have further increased applications and grants.
Chinese nationals were the most common nationality granted Sponsored study visas in the year ending September 2021, with 135,457 visas granted, an increase of 13% compared with the year ending September 2019. This accounted for 32% of the total Sponsored study visas granted, a slightly smaller proportion than the peak of 43% granted in the year ending September 2019. COVID-19 restrictions were implemented early in China, from January 2020, and may have disproportionately affected the number of study grants to Chinese students in 2020. Before travel restrictions were implemented, there had been a steady rise in the proportion of Sponsored study visas granted to Chinese nationals since 2009 when they made up only 14% of visas granted in this route.
Compared with the previous year, there was an increase of 45,677 (+102%) grants to Indian nationals, reaching 90,669. This was also 197% higher than the year ending September 2019. Indian nationals remain the nationality with the second highest number of Sponsored study visa grants. Chinese and Indian nationals together comprise more than half (53%) of all Sponsored study grants.
In the top 5 nationalities, Nigerian nationals saw the largest relative increase in Sponsored Study grants compared with the year ending September 2019, increasing by 28,923 (+368%) to a record high of 36,783, making them the third largest nationality group this year. Pakistani nationals also saw a large increase across this period of 10,275 (+225%). In contrast, United States nationals only saw a modest increase of 382 (+3%).
Additionally, Bangladeshi nationals increased from just 1,981 to 10,090 (+410%) compared with the year ending September 2019. This made Bangladeshi nationals the sixth largest group.
Table 1: Top 5 nationalities1 granted Sponsored study visas, year ending September 2019, September 2020 and September 2021
Source: Entry clearance visa applications and outcomes Vis_D02
Top 5 nationalities in the most recent year.
‘Other nationalities’ includes all nationalities that don’t feature in the top 5 in the latest year.
Those coming on Sponsored study visas bring relatively few dependants, with 90% of the visas issued being to main applicants, compared with 68% for Work visas.
However, sponsored study grants to dependants almost trebled, increasing to 44,605. This was a larger relative increase compared to main applicants, whose number increased by 138% in the year ending September 2021 from the previous year.
In the year ending September 2021, two nationalities accounted for the majority (63%) of Sponsored study dependants: India (33%) and Nigeria (31%). Despite having more Sponsored study visas granted than any other single country, China only had 355 dependants granted a visa in this route, just 0.8% of the total dependants granted, and less than 0.3% of the total grants for Chinese nationals.
In addition to those coming on sponsored visas, there were 5,988 Short-term Study visas granted in the year ending September 2021, 83% fewer than the previous year. The reduction is similar to the reductions seen in visitor numbers and, as for other types of visitors, this decrease is likely due to restrictions on international travel during the pandemic.
Not every person will require a visa for short-term study in the UK; for example, the largest numbers of short-term students are US nationals who are permitted to study whilst on a visit visa and will not be included in the number of short-term study visas.
In 2020, 37,873 former Tier 4 Child Student or Tier 4 General Student visa holders extended their leave in the UK, either for further study or to remain in the UK for other reasons, such as for marriage or work.
In August 2020, the Home Office published its ‘Fifth report on statistics relating to exit checks’, which showed that the vast majority (97%) of those with Sponsored study (Tier 4) visas expiring in the year ending March 2020, were known to have departed from the UK before their visa expired.
From the 1st of January 2021, changes in the immigration rules mean that EEA and Swiss (excluding Irish) nationals require a visa to study in the UK. In Q1, Q2 and Q3 2021, there were a total of 20,774 Sponsored study visa grants to EEA and Swiss students, 6% of the total for this period. This is a more modest number compared to work visas, which saw 22,485 work visas granted to EEA and Swiss nationals in the same period, 13% of the total for work. Study visa applications fluctuate heavily with respect to the academic year, and for the first three quarters of 2021, 91% of sponsored study visa grants to EEA and Swiss students occurred in Q3.
For EEA and Swiss nationals in the first three quarters of 2021, French students had the highest number of Sponsored study grants (3,872), followed by students from Germany (3,500) and Spain (3,183). Together these three nationalities made up over half (51%) of all EEA and Swiss grants to study in this period.
The new Graduate route was introduced on 01 July 2021, which allows students who have successfully completed a bachelor’s degree, postgraduate degree or other eligible course to stay in the UK for a period after their studies to work or look for work. A Graduate visa lasts for two years, or three years in the case of completing a PhD or other doctoral qualification. Further information on the number of extensions granted in this category can be found in the ‘How many people continue their stay in the UK or apply to stay permanently’ topic.
In the year ending September 2021, the total number of applications for Certificates of Acceptance for Study (CAS) was 356,559. A more detailed breakdown can be found in the detailed sponsorship tables.
The vast majority of visas (91%) are for study at higher education (university) institutions, with the total divided between:
There was a 38% increase in applications for CAS from 258,787, compared with the year ending September 2019.
The most recent Higher Education Statistics Authority’s (HESA) student statistics report covers the 2019 to 2020 academic year, and reported a 5% increase in all first-year student enrolments in academic year 2019 to 2020, including a 23% increase in the number of new non-EU students. These statistics however relate to the period preceding the pandemic.
The statistics in this section provide an indication of the number of people who have an intention to enter the UK for study reasons.
Before 2021, due to European Union (EU) freedom of movement principles, the majority of UK immigration control related to non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationals. From 2021, unless otherwise stated, data in this release relate to both EEA and non-EEA nationals.
Entry clearance visas allow an individual to enter and stay in the UK within the period for which the visa is valid. Data in this section refer to the number of Entry clearance visas granted for study reasons within the period. If an individual was granted a visa more than once in a given period, this has been counted as multiple grants in the statistics. If an individual entered the UK multiple times within the period for which a visa was valid, this has been counted as one grant in the visa statistics.
The data does not show whether, or when, an individual arrived in the UK, what they did on arrival or how long they stayed in the UK.
Year-on-year comparisons of the number of decisions can be affected by quarterly fluctuations in the data. These fluctuations can be examined in the quarterly data in the published tables.
The Student visa has replaced the Tier 4 (General) Student visa as of 5th October 2020. It provides a route for students over the age of 16 to study with an approved education provider in the UK.
The Child student visa has replaced the Tier 4 (Child) Student visa as of 5th October 2020. It provides a route for students between the ages of 4 and 17 years old to study at an approved independent school in the UK.
Tier 4 (Sponsored study) provides a route for students to study with an approved education provider. It was implemented from 31 March 2009, replacing previous entry routes for study. It has been discontinued since 5th October 2020 and has been replaced with the Student and Child student routes.
From Q4 2019, the method for extracting in-country and out-of-country CAS data has changed. Data quality issues identified as part of this change in methodology has meant that some cases from Q1 2020 onwards are unable to be separately identified as either a visa or extension case, and so have been categorised as ‘unknown’.
To apply for a Student visa or for an extension of stay as a student (sponsored), individuals must use a CAS from a sponsoring educational institution. Study visas applied for with a CAS are also referred to as ‘Sponsored visa applications’. Statistics relating to sponsored acceptances for study measure the number of successful sponsorship applications in the four main educational sectors: universities (higher education), further education, independent schools and English language schools.
The Short-term study visa (previously described as ‘Student visitor’) allows individuals to come to the UK for 6 months (or 11 months if they will be studying an English language course). Individuals with this visa cannot extend their stay. Admissions data shows considerably more Short-term student admissions from non-EEA nationals than Short-term student visas granted. This is due to many student visitor admissions being from nationalities that are not required to obtain a visa if they wish to come to the UK as a Short-term student for 6 months or less (such as US nationals).
Until 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published long-term international migration (LTIM) estimates in its ‘Migration Statistics Quarterly Report’ (latest data available is for the year ending March 2020). The ONS are currently reviewing their methods for measuring population and migration; see their blog post for more information on the latest developments to ONS population and migration data.
In January 2021, HESA published its latest ‘Higher Education Student Statistics UK’ for the academic year 2019 to 2020. HESA publishes data on new entrants to UK higher education providers for both EEA and non-EEA nationals.
Data on student immigration can be found in the following tables:
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