Up to a third of international students would delay coming to the United Kingdom to study and more than one in 10 would cancel coming to the UK to study if their country is put on a red travel list, which would require them to quarantine in a hotel, according to a new survey.

The research from Quacquarelli Symonds or QS, the think tank and provider of QS World University Rankings, comes as international and domestic students prepare for the start of the new academic year and investigates the COVID impacts that are either facilitating or hampering the efforts of international students as they return to studying.

These impacts include the UK government’s system of placing countries on red, amber and green travel lists, according to the perceived risk of incoming travellers spreading the coronavirus, and the rules for quarantining and isolation that go with them.

Under current rules, international students whose home countries are moved to the UK’s red travel list would have to quarantine for 10 full days in a managed quarantine hotel.

The research found that nearly three quarters (75%) of prospective international students are worried about their home country’s status on the travel lists impacting their ability to study in the UK.

Over half (53%) of students surveyed identified the cost of isolating in a hotel as their biggest concern if their home country was added to the red list.

A third (33%) of prospective international students would delay their travel plans if their home country was placed on the red list until it was removed, while 13% of those surveyed said that if this were to happen, they would cancel their plans to study in the UK altogether.

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of prospective international students thought that students from red list countries should be able to self-isolate in university halls rather than hotels. Just under a half (46%) of prospective international students would want government support to allow international students to isolate in university halls rather than hotels.

The findings come from an August survey of 2,516 prospective international students considering studying in the UK, released on 6 September.

Of the students surveyed, 10% were from Nigeria, while 25% were from India, two countries that have been identified as priority destinations in the government’s International Education Strategy and both of which are currently on the UK’s amber list.

Paul Raybould, director of marketing at QS, said the report shows that the sector and the UK government must continue to work together to ensure that international students are well informed about the latest travel restrictions.

“Our research highlights that international students would prefer to isolate in halls of residence if their home country is added to the UK red travel list, citing financial concerns regarding the cost of hotels.

“It is therefore vital that the sector and government remain responsive to these concerns to ensure the UK remains accessible and attractive to prospective international students from red list countries,” he said.

Further pressure

The findings come amid further pressure on the government and universities to reduce obstacles and disincentives to international students studying in the UK.

International student numbers at UK universities have been hit by the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and changes to the tuition fee structure for European Union students after Brexit, with EU student acceptances to undergraduate degree courses 56% lower in early August 2021 than at the same time last year.

Over the longer term, universities have been battling the negative influence of the government’s approach since 2013 of trying to create a hostile environment for migration, which the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has begun to reverse for international students.

The stakes for universities were underlined in a new report, The Costs and Benefits of International Higher Education Students to the UK Economy, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Universities UK International this week, with research from London Economics.

It reveals that hosting international students is making every part of the UK financially better off on average by £390 (US$541) per person, adding £28.8 billion (US$40 billion) to the economy each year.

This significantly outweighs the costs of international students, including their use of public services, which are put at £2.9 billion.

The net economic benefit of £25.9 billion is spread across every part of the UK.

For example, the contribution to the UK economy of international students in the 2018-19 intake resident in Sheffield Central is £290 million. Other notable results include Nottingham South (£261 million); Holborn and St Pancras (£243 million); Newcastle upon Tyne East (£240 million); East Ham (£217 million); Cambridge (£214 million); Cardiff Central (£181 million); and Glasgow Central (£171 million).

Launching the report, Universities UK International and HEPI have called for more to be done to promote the UK as a welcoming, diverse and accessible study destination. This could include ensuring the success of the new Graduate Route, reducing the financial barriers for international students by creating more diverse funding opportunities, and supporting the improvement of English language ability.

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said: “This report confirms higher education is one of the UK’s greatest export earners.”

He said the policy environment for international recruitment is, in many respects, more conducive than it was, with the government gradually becoming more positive about international students. “But the current halving in the number of EU students confirms future success cannot be taken for granted.”

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “While there has been a growing realisation of the tremendous social and cultural benefits of international students, this study provides a stark reminder of their financial importance to communities across the UK, economic recovery and the levelling up agenda.

“We now need fresh ideas and stronger momentum to achieve the UK government’s international education strategy target of attracting at least 600,000 international students every year by 2030 and the good this will bring to everyone.”

Dr Gavan Conlon, partner at London Economics, said: “After Brexit and the pandemic, the long-term challenges facing the UK economy have never been greater. Built on a world-class higher education sector, international students represent a huge growth opportunity to the UK economy. Every effort should be made by the UK government to further develop this crucial export market.”