[vc_row el_class=”content-1″][vc_column][vc_column_text]1st Quarter of 2019 | Published May 2019

United Kingdom International Education Research Report

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In the 2016–17 academic year, there were 2,316,475 international students at higher education institutions in the UK. 1,764,895 (76.2%) were undergraduates and 551,580 (23.8%) were postgraduates. 77.6% (1,797,545) were studying full time, and 22.4% (518,925) studying part-time. This is just a sneak peek of how competent the international education market of UK is.

This research provides a brief overview of recent trends in international student mobility and implications for higher education institutions in the UK as they seek to recruit international students.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_class=”content-1″ css=”.vc_custom_1565674638179{margin-top: 15px !important;}”][vc_column][vc_column_text]International student mobility has continued to surge, as reflected in the recent data from most major destination countries. However, changes are occurring, some large and some subtle, and a selection of these trends are briefly discussed below.

UK Higher Education: A Global Success Story

The international diversity we see in UK institutions and the academic community, the experiences, teaching, and research they offer, are renowned the world over. The quality and reputation of the UK international education sector are, in no small part, down to the scale, scope and quality of UK universities’ global engagement. The UK is truly an international sector with global reach and influence.

Key Facts and Figures

  1. 76% of research at higher education institutions were considered as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ for its overall quality in 2014
  2. UK higher education institutions received £4.2 billion from knowledge exchange activities in 2015−16
  3. More than half of UK research is produced through international collaborations
  4. UK government spending on research and development is below the OECD average as a proportion of GDP
  5. 43% of postgraduate research students and 29% of academic staff were from overseas


Latest Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education

Graph 1: Preferred study destinations of international students

Graph 2: number of international students in the UK

Graph 3: Countries of Origin of international students in the UK

The data analyses the last ten years in higher education, focusing on applications, student demographics and graduate outcomes; staff backgrounds and expertise; and the income and expenditure of higher education institutions.

International (Non-UK) Students In UK HE In 2016-17

  1. 81% of students studying in HE in the UK are from inside the UK. 6% are from the rest of the EU and 13% are from the rest of the world.
  2. The total number of non-UK students studying in the UK in 2016-17 is 442,375
  3. 42% of students studying at the postgraduate level in the UK are from outside the EU.
  4. The second largest number of non-EU students in the UK is from India but the number has declined by 26% since 2012-13.
  5. Across the UK:
  6. England has the highest number of students from outside the EU (14%)
  7. Scotland has the highest number of students from the EU (not including the UK) (9%)
  8. Wales has had the largest decrease in numbers from students from outside the EU (25% drop since 2013-14)


Student Enrolment Numbers

Graph 4: First-year higher education (HE) student enrolments by level of study

Graph 5: HE qualifications obtained by level of qualification Academic years 2008/09 to 2017/18

The number of postgraduate taught qualifications obtained has reached its highest point in ten years. This follows the increase in enrolments on postgraduate taught courses in 2016/17.

The number of first degree qualifications obtained has increased each year, except 2014/15 which is likely to be related to the drop in first-year students in 2012/13.

The number of other undergraduate qualifications continues to decline in line with the decline in first-year student numbers.

Where Are Students In HE Studying?

In 2017/18, 168 HE providers reported student data to HESA. More information on what this means in terms of coverage of the higher education sector is given in the reference section.

The figures below show the number of students studying at each HE provider in the UK in 2017/18, with a breakdown of the geographic location of students’ permanent home address before the study (known as domicile).

Figure 1: HE student enrolments by HE provider and domicile Academic year 2017/18

Figure 2: HE student enrolments by HE provider and domicile Academic year 2017/18

Figure 3: HE student enrolments by HE provider and domicile Academic year 2017/18

Subjects Studied

Over the academic years 2013/14 – 2017/18, there was an increase in the percentage of female students studying science subjects, but this remains lower than the total sector percentage.

Figure 4: Percentage of HE student enrolments in science subject areas by personal characteristics (Academic years 2013/14 to 2017/18

Top Ten Non-EU Sending Countries

Figure 5: Top 10 Non-Eu countries that send international students to the UK

Top EU Sending Countries

Figure 6: Top 10 EU countries that send international students to the UK

Top 20 Largest Recruiters Of International Students 2016-17

Figure 7: Top 20 largest recruiters of international students (2016-2017)

Student Visa Numbers

As the chart below shows, Nigeria experienced the sharpest decline, with UK study visa issuance down by 30.7% every year since 2016, notably worse than the 11% drop posted the previous year.

Malaysia, one of the UK’s top recruitment markets for years, saw study visas recede by 14% to 7,697. Despite shedding a combined 3,826 study visas from 2015, Malaysia and Nigeria still rank as the UK’s 5th and 6th largest non-EU recruitment markets, respectively.

Graph 6: Student visa issuance trends in the UK

Graph 7: Student visa issuance trends from countries of origin (2017-2018)

Key facts

  1. In the year ending March 2018, there were 223,839 Tier 4 Study-related visas granted, a 7% increase on the previous year.
  2. Over the same period, the number of University-sponsored study visa applications rose 6% to 178,612. This included an 8% increase for Russell Group universities to 87,175.
  3. Three nationalities (Chinese, Indian and the US) accounted for over half (53%) of the 223,839 Study-related visas granted in the year ending March 2018, with the largest number granted to Chinese nationals (88,657, or 40% of the total).
  4. There were notable increases in the number of Study-related visas granted to:
  5. Chinese nationals, up 11,381 (15%) to 88,657
  6. Indian nationals, up 3,530 (30%) to 15,171


Nationalities granted the highest number of study-related visas, year ending March 2018 compared to the year ending March 20171

Long-Term Trends In Student Immigration

Study-related visas granted, 2008 to year ending March 2018


Plans to review visa processes

While there was no policy change included in the International Education Strategy about a new visa processing approach, the document does signal that this area will be monitored for possible improvements going forward:

A strategy for uncertain and competitive times

It might not be supported by a change in the net migration policy or committed to two years of post-study work rights for international students. However, the new International Education Strategy is widely seen as a step in the right direction and an acknowledgment from the government that the sector is extremely valuable to the British economy, a great source of pride for the country, and an industry that is facing unprecedented competition from destinations including Australia and Canada.

Policy recommendations

A more favorable post-study work visa system should be re-introduced to make UK higher education institutions more competitive against international study schemes offered by other major destination countries such as Canada, Australia, the US, Germany and Ireland.

International student migration policy should be developed with regards to pathways for post-study mobility – for instance Canada’s Postgraduate Work Permit programme or Experience Class programme.

International students should be removed from the UK’s net migration target, to avoid reductions in student visas and loss of revenue for universities and the wider economy.

Key findings

  1. There were many factors driving international students’ decision to enroll at a UK university. The most cited reason was the desire to enroll at a world-class university (82% of survey respondents), followed by the opportunity to pursue an international career (61%).
  2. The assumption that student mobility either leads to return migration to the country of origin or longer-term integration in the place of study is too simplistic. Other outcomes such as migration to a third country after studies are also common.
  3. While 40% of international students in the survey expected to return to their country of origin, around 37% had plans for onward migration to other international destinations, the third option, staying in the UK, was the least likely outcome.
  4. Income from international student fees is a very important source of funding for UK universities, although the effect is uneven across the sector.
  5. A small number of countries are important sources of international students coming to the UK, in particular China. By 2014-15 China sent around 90,000 students, accounting for nearly 29% of all non-EU students enrolled in UK higher education institutions.
  6. Many countries show a consistent pattern of decline in sending students to the UK over the 2011/12- 2014/15 period covered by the HESA dataset, particularly EU countries, with the largest reductions in student numbers coming from Greece, Ireland and Germany. These trends emerged before (and hence unaffected by) the EU referendum campaign.
  7. There is also evidence of the UK becoming less attractive as a study destination outside the EU. Over the last four years international student migration from India has collapsed (from 39,090 students in 2010/11 to 18,320 students in 2014/15); other countries with similar reduction include Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.



While the data above may seem bleak, UK institutions have not felt the pain equally. A look at the presented enrolment data shows a sharp contrast in the experience of institutions over the subsequent five years. The sharp visa rules are also playing a significant role.

This is not to say that student recruitment is a lost cause for universities, but the realities of the UK visa policies and global economic conditions suggest that they will be swimming against a strengthening tide. Success will depend on differentiating their business approaches, shifting away from a focus on recruitment and looking at a more diversified array of transnational education, foundation and professional development offerings.

It may seem like a burden in the short term, but it may put these universities on better footing in the future. The emerging trend in global higher education is a shift towards intra-regional student flows, particularly in emerging hubs in East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Given limited options for expanding recruitment at home, many UK institutions will have to focus their efforts on delivering abroad. In the long-run, they may be thankful for the head start.


  1. https://www.fenews.co.uk
  2. https://www.hesa.ac.uk
  3. https://education-services.britishcouncil.org
  4. https://thepienews.com
  5. https://esrc.ukri.org

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