No surprise. Broadly consistent with other countries:

On 21st May 2020, the government released its ‘Immigration statistics, year ending March 2020’, and it confirmed what those in the world of academia already knew; that there was a sharp drop in the number of international students when the lockdown took hold at the end of March. While the publication was not intended to provide a full analysis of the impact of Coronavirus on the immigration system, it did find a significant fall in applications for study visas in March 2020; it states, “in March 2020, Tier 4 visa applications fell significantly when compared to March 2019, in particular for Chinese nationals, and likely related to COVID-19. At the same time, the number of Tier 4 (sponsored study) visas issued in the first quarter of 2020 increased by 84&#x c;ompared with the same quarter in 2019, although there were falls towards the end of March 2020”.

The fall in student numbers follows record increases in 2019

The clear reduction in student numbers is all the more jarring given that the sector has seen a boom in international students in recent years, helped in large part by the reversal of Theresa May’s student immigration policy which required students to depart only four months after completing their studies. According to Government data, in the year ending September 2019, sponsored study visas increased by a not inconsiderable 13&#x (;258,787 students), of which 86&#x w;ere for university education.

UK universities planning for a return of students

There is no doubt that UK academic institutions have been hit hard by COVID-19, not least because of the large black hole which now exists in place of the regular supply of domestic and international student fee revenue. According to a recent analysis by London Economics for the University and College Union, it is expected that UK universities will see a £2.6 billion shortfall in the next academic year due to the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. Of this £2.6 billion is from domestic students and the remainder from international students. It is clear; therefore, how important overseas students are to UK universities and positive and reassuring that plans are now in place to allow some students to return to campus-based learning.

Some UK universities are planning to reopen from June 2020 with a range of essential measures to ensure the safety of staff and students being put place. Smaller class sizes and an increase in the number of online lectures will become normal from the middle of this year. While not all universities have a plan to reopen yet and are instead waiting for clarity from the government before reopening, some have mature plans almost ready to go. The University of Wolverhampton, for example, will be offering a “full digital suite of course material”, and will prioritise the opening of building openings over time. The university’s vice-chancellor Geoff Layer stated, “We will be looking at a gradual return to certain buildings being open and we will develop a plan which prioritises which parts can open first. It won’t be ‘we’re all back’. Social distancing has to be part of what we do, so I’d imagine we would be opening selected spaces over time”.

At Birmingham City University some, but not all, of the 2019-20 cohort of students will be returning for lessons from June 2020. The 2020-21 intake will start their courses in September 2020 with a new set of COVID-19 safety measures designed to protect the wellbeing of students and teachers in place. The university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Philip Plowden, says that students will be returning to the campus “on a limited basis”, and that changes are being made to the way in which buildings are utilised to ensure adherence with social distancing. Professor Plowdon believes that this partial reopening is essential to allow students who are reliant on-campus facilities to complete their courses; “Our priority for this year is to ensure that every student gets the qualifications for which they are working, or are able to make progress towards getting those qualifications. Our absolute priority is the safety of our staff and students and all of our decisions continue to be made with the safety of our community in mind.”

Even if academic institutions won’t be back to where they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, the confidence and boost to sentiment, not to say, cash flow, will be warmly welcomed by the sector.

Those universities which are not reopening in June 2020 will no doubt be watching those that do with considerable interest, not only to see whether it can be done but also to understand the measures which they too will need to put in place in the near future. It is also likely that international students will be watching to see how safe UK universities are over the next few weeks in anticipation of resuming their own studies in September 2020. As such, UK learning institutions can do much to inspire confidence in prospective overseas students by responding effectively now.

Returning students will be required to self-isolate

Anyone arriving in the UK from the 8th June 2020, including those holding a Tier 4 study visa, will be required by law to self-isolate. They will be asked to provide an address for where they will be in quarantine and will face fines of up to £1,000 and random spot checks. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee these additional measures put in place by the government will be lifted by September 2020 for the start of the new academic year, hence it is best to plan for an earlier arrival.

Wrapping up

The impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s education sector will be remembered for many years, but hopefully, with time, students from overseas will be able to continue their studies in earnest. Global events such as this allow us to truly appreciate the wonderful opportunities provided by the overseas study. As we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, our immigration specialists look forward to helping international student clients and their families over the coming months to return to the UK to resume their studies.