More than half of overseas students in the UK say they have felt “less welcome” because of policies on migration, a survey suggests.
A survey of more than 500 overseas students across 105 institutions showed 52% had a negative perception of the attempts to cut migration numbers.
Almost half of North American students in the UK shared this concern.
Universities have campaigned to have students counted separately from headline migration figures.
Business Secretary Vince Cable recently said that the UK’s “torrid” debate on immigration risked damaging the economically valuable recruitment of overseas students.
He warned of the “public panic” over migrant numbers and how it could adversely affect overseas students.
The survey of attitudes of overseas students in the UK, commissioned by Regent’s University in London, shows a contrasting picture.
While students feel that migration targets have made them feel less welcome, they have a positive account of their experience in the UK.
About four in five of the students backed the quality of their courses and teaching and almost nine in 10 would recommend studying in the UK.
There are worrying signs that the government’s migration policy risks alienating overseas students”
There is also a distinction between the public drive to reduce migrant numbers and their private experience of people in the UK, with almost nine in 10 saying that they felt welcome.
There was more uncertainty about overseas students’ relationship with other students and the wider university, with a quarter saying that they did not feel “part of the university community”.
The survey found that 40% of overseas students “mainly spend time” with other students from their country and about one in five admitted feeling “isolated”.
Almost a third of overseas students agreed with the suggestion that “my university is only interested in the fees I pay”.
However, despite warnings that “negative rhetoric” about immigration could put off potential students, the application figures for this year show rising rather than falling interest in UK universities.
There have been drops from individual countries, but the overall figures from the admissions service Ucas, published last month, show that applications from overseas students are higher than last year.
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of Regent’s University, a private college that gained university status this year, said: “These findings show that UK higher education is unmatched in its global reputation. However, there are worrying signs that the government’s migration policy risks alienating overseas students in the UK.
“This is being compounded by the tendency in some institutions for overseas students to be left in de facto ghettos, rarely mixing outside their national groups.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that international students make a “huge contribution” to the UK and emphasised that “there is no cap on the number of legitimate overseas students.
“But we need to ensure that the message gets through that they are fully welcome in the UK to study.
“Our universities are second only to the USA as the favoured destination for international students, and to maintain this strong appeal around the globe the government is developing an industrial strategy to ensure our universities stay ahead in the global race.”
BBC © 2013