New polling shows public support for international students

20 May 2024

A new survey demonstrates that voters support international students and the value they bring to the UK – and only 1% of people think they should be a priority target for reducing immigration.

The poll, carried out by Survation, saw voters from across the political spectrum recognising the contribution that international students, and those who stay to work on the Graduate route visa, bring to the UK. Modelling by London Economics shows that a single cohort of international students has a net economic benefit of £37bn, and this is reflected in public attitudes: 43% of people described the economic contribution of international students as positive and 50% agreed that bringing more international students to the UK would help the economy, with only 13% disagreeing.

Those surveyed also understood the relationship between welcoming international students and funding more teaching for UK students. Over half (51%) were concerned that cutting international student numbers would lead to an increase in tuition fees for UK students, and 58% believed that universities should be able to use international student fees to support the sector – with just 7% disagreeing.

The majority of respondents also think that restricting international students would be the wrong priority, and that Government should be focusing on illegal immigration:

  • 57% think tackling illegal immigration should be the Government’s immigration priority.
  • Just 2% think Government should prioritise reducing immigration numbers by taking action to restrict the ability of students to stay in the UK and work after their studies.
  • Only 1% want Government to prioritise reducing international student numbers, compared to 45% who say Government should prioritise blocking small boat arrivals.

This polling is published as Government is due to respond to findings from the Migration Advisory Committee on the Graduate Route visa. In a letter to the Prime Minister this weekend, Chief Executive of the Russell Group Dr Tim Bradshaw wrote: “International students bring huge value to our communities – they are net contributors to the treasury, they create jobs and companies, and they bring skills and global perspectives to universities and workplaces. A further restriction in international students would not only be unnecessary – as numbers are already falling – but also damaging, resulting in less spending in local communities, fewer opportunities for domestic students and less UK research”.

In its impact assessment before the route’s launch, the Home Office estimated the route would result in a net fiscal gain of over £6bn for the Exchequer in 2021/22 - 2030/31.

Responding to the survey findings, Dr Tim Bradshaw said:

“It’s clear that the British public recognise the value of international students to their local economy, to our society and to our global standing – and it’s therefore no surprise that they overwhelmingly want to see the numbers of international students increase or remain the same. Making further restrictions would not only run counter to plans to grow the national economy, but would be out of step with what voters want.

More details can be found in the Russell Group briefing, ‘Graduate Route: What Voters Think’.


  • English universities, on average, supplemented the cost of educating UK undergraduates by £2,500 per student per year in 2022/23.
  • UK universities subsidised research activity by £5 billion in 2021/22 (up from £2.9 billion in 2014/15)
  • Russell Group modelling suggests a 10% reduction in international student numbers would reduce our universities’ collective income by over £500m a year.
  • Income from international students has enabled our universities to grow the number of places for UK undergraduates over time despite the shortfalls in government funding: between 2019/20 and 2021/22, the number of UK students at our universities grew by 10%, while international student numbers grew by 11%.
  • Find out more about the value of the Graduate Route to the UK in our latest briefing.

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