Predicting the Impact of the UK’s Dependants Policy Change on International Students

In May 2023, the UK government announced that they would begin to limit the ability of international students to bring dependants into the country with them. This news reverberated across the academic landscape, immediately capturing the intrigue of countless prospective students and industry professionals.

Many students, particularly those hailing from some large source markets, pursue international study opportunities with the intention of bringing family members with them. This policy change brings about a few big questions. How will it impact the UK’s international student population? Just how significant has the influx of dependant students to the UK been in recent years? And, what are the pros and cons of the UK policies surrounding dependants of international students?

In today’s ApplyInsights, we’ll get to the root of these questions and trace the growth of dependants going abroad to the UK.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • From 2021 to 2023, the number of main applicants granted UK study visas increased by 112%.1
  • During the same time frame, dependants on study visas in the UK increased by over 530%.2
  • Nigeria was the largest source of dependants in the UK in 2022/23, with a ratio of 1.16 dependants per main applicant.
  • China had a less than a 0.01 dependant to main applicant ratio, the lowest of any nation.3

UK Dependant Numbers Skyrocket Following Graduate Route Announcement

Beginning in the summer of 2021, international students graduating from UK universities could apply to the Graduate Route—a two-year post-study work visa with minimal eligibility requirements. In the UK, dependants of international students are permitted to stay for the duration of the primary applicant’s visa. So, a longer stay for students meant a longer stay for dependants.

Let’s take a look at how that impacted the volume of dependants in the UK:

The growth of dependants since the launch of the Graduate Route has been immense. From 2020/21 to 2022/23, the number of main applicants granted student visas increased by 112%. During the same time frame, dependants on study visas in the UK grew by over 530%.

The UK sent shockwaves throughout the international education industry when it was announced they reached their international student population targets 10 years ahead of schedule. But this surge in dependants may have come as an even bigger surprise.

Let’s examine the different source markets that drove the UK to make this policy change.

Where Are UK Dependants Coming From?

The first question this policy change brings about is how international students’ appetite for studying in the UK will be impacted. In order to answer that, we ranked source markets by the volume of dependants their students bring with them:

The sheer volume of Nigeria’s and India’s dependant totals jump out as the biggest data points on this chart. The two markets accounted for 73% of all dependants on study visas in the UK last year and are the most at risk of enrollment decreasing in 2024.

Looking at the numbers by country, the most important metric for predicting the impact of this policy change is the dependant to main applicant ratio—the number of dependants for every primary student visa issued. In 2022/23, there were 0.31 dependants for every primary study visa in the UK.

Nigeria is the country that is most likely to see a decrease in enrollment next year. With 1.16 dependants for every primary applicant in 2022/23, Nigeria was by far the largest source of dependants in the UK last year.

Nigeria and Sri Lanka were the only two countries in 2022/23 that were issued more dependant study visas than primary study visas.

Given that Nigeria was the third-largest source of international students in the UK in 2022/23 and the fourth-fastest growing source market, application numbers from this country have the power to impact overall numbers in the UK by a significant amount. If not being able to bring family along with them is a dealbreaker for Nigerian students, we could see application numbers decline by a large percentage.

Policy Change Creates Silver Lining for Chinese Students

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s one country that could see its foothold in the UK international education market increase significantly in 2023/24—China.

China has been under the microscope for over two years now due to decreasing numbers of study visas, but it is perhaps the best positioned of any country to emerge from this policy change in an advantageous spot. China’s 100,000 study visas ranked second in 2023, but Chinese students rarely bring dependants with them.

In 2023, China had a less than 0.01 dependant to main applicant ratio, the lowest dependant ratio of any nation. Taking this into consideration, along with the lifting of China’s domestic “Zero-COVID” restrictions, China is very well positioned for a big rebound year in the UK market.

Meanwhile, several of the UK’s fastest-growing international student markets displayed an above-average dependant ratio in 2022/23. Look for the growth of these markets to plateau, while China’s rises.

Many UK universities have pivoted away from China over the past few years in light of plateauing numbers and a desire for diverse international student populations. However, at least in the short term, it may make sense to recruit from what figures to be a stable market in China to ensure targets are met.

Reasons to be Optimistic About This Policy Change

There are a lot of factors to consider when gauging the impact of this policy adjustment. Let’s start with the good. This change only impacts international students at the postgraduate level. Undergraduate students in the UK were already prohibited from bringing dependants with them, so this shift won’t factor into their decision. UK postgraduate programs also only take about a year to complete, which is comparatively very short to some of the world’s other big destination markets.

And, it cannot be forgotten that this policy was put into place by a government party and could be removed by a government party. The duration of this change could be tied to the length of the Conservative party’s time in office, making it difficult to project the long-term implications.

Reasons Why Concerns Are Legitimate

There’s also merit to the concerns that have been voiced around the implications of this policy change. For students from countries with high dependant ratios, not being able to bring dependants for the duration of their degree is likely to be a deterrent. India, Nigeria, and Pakistan are three of the top four source markets for postgraduate enrollment in the UK, and are all likely to see growth step back in 2024.

The recent changes to student visa rules also mean the UK’s Graduate Route visa will be less competitive when viewed alongside other study destinations. Other countries, like Australia, are introducing more favourable policies for students, such as the Australian Temporary Graduate visa, which just increased post-graduate work periods allotted to international students at all study levels.

There’s also concern that these changes fail to treat all students equally and are potentially disadvantaging certain groups. Specifically, this policy change may create inequitable access to the Graduate Route visa, disadvantaging female students who often have caring responsibilities to dependants. These students are already at a disadvantage as they are more likely to have to return home before receiving confirmation of their award and are unable to apply for the Graduate Route visa from abroad.

UK Universities Will Need to Adapt to Dependants Policy Change

The next 12 months will teach us a lot about just how much bringing family with them means to international students.

While the policy shift may create challenges for students from countries with high dependant ratios, it could also present opportunities for other markets. China, with its low dependant-to-main applicant ratio and the lifting of domestic COVID restrictions, should see a surge in its foothold in the UK education market.

Looking ahead, UK universities are likely to adjust their recruiting strategies, focusing on markets less likely to bring dependants. Countries like China and the US, where students typically prioritize solo study experiences, are expected to remain strong sources of international students in the UK.

Despite the concerns raised, there are advantages to this policy change, including alleviating financial pressure for students and streamlining of the postgraduate application process. However, concerns about equitable access to the Graduate Route visa and potential declines in enrollment from certain source markets must also be carefully addressed.

As with any policy, its longevity could be tied to political factors, making it challenging to predict its long-term implications accurately. But, the international education landscape is continually evolving, and universities, governments, and stakeholders must monitor and adapt to these changes in order to compete on a global scale.


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About the ApplyInsights Team

Led by ApplyBoard Co-Founder and CEO Meti Basiri, the ApplyInsights Team analyzes the latest government, third-party, and ApplyBoard internal data to provide a complete picture of trends in the international education industry. They also work with industry experts and ApplyBoard team members to gather local insights across key source and destination countries, where ApplyBoard has helped more than 600,000 students around the world.



1. Year ending in March.

2. All UK data courtesy of the UK Home Office, except where noted otherwise.

3. Minimum 100 study visas issued in the year ending March 2023.


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