UK Hits 600,000 International Enrolment 2030 Target 10 Years Early After Restoring Post-Study Work Visa


Key Takeaways:

  • Data released from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showed an enormous achievement of 605,130 international students enrolled for the academic year of 2020-2021–an overall increase of roughly 30% compared to 2017/18 levels.
  • China remains the biggest exporter of students than any other foreign country with 48,225 or 50% growth from 2016/17 to 2020/21.
  • Nigerian and Pakistani nationalities have the largest increase of 368% and 225% respectively in terms of sponsored study visa grants.

With the shift to online learning and the closure of borders in the last couple of years, education agencies initially expressed their concerns about the plight of higher education in the UK.


In an article discussing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020/21 UK Student data, HESA Lead Policy and Research Analyst Lucy Van Essen-Fishman said, “After higher education providers moved to remote learning, there were worries that UK-based students who might otherwise have enrolled in courses of higher education would defer enrolment or turn to other options after finishing their secondary education. As borders closed, there was also widespread concern that the pandemic would lead to a collapse in the UK’s international student population.” 


Contrary to these challenges, things are looking bright in the international education sector of the country. The United Kingdom posed victoriously as it reached its target of 600,000 foreign enrolments in higher education a decade early despite concerns about immigration, Brexit, and the COVID 19 pandemic.


Reaffirmation of 2019 Global Strategy


It can be recalled that the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) laid out a 2019 strategy to translate the government’s enthusiasm onto the education scene.


Two of its concrete highlights are to “increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year” and “increase the total number of international students choosing to study in the UK higher education system each year to 600,000” by 2030, which include the appointment of an International Education Champion for global activities that promote a welcoming environment and ensuring competitive opportunities for international students.


In 2021, the UK government reaffirmed its commitment to move towards sustainable growth through a revised 2021 plan that includes: (1) enhancing the international student experience from application to employment, (2) establishing a new international teaching qualification, International Qualified Teacher Status, (3) increasing export opportunities for the UK chartered professional bodies and UK special educational needs and disabilities providers, and (4) enhancing the Turing scheme, which will provide funding for students in universities, colleges, and schools to undertake placements across the world. 


And just about two years after rolling out its plan, data released from  Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showed an enormous achievement of 605,130 international students enrolled for the academic year of 2020-2021, an overall increase of roughly 30% compared to 2017/18 levels. 

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Inside and Outside the European Union as a Source Market


Statistics from HESA revealed that there is a slight decrease in the number of international first-year first-degree students from outside the EU. However, it was counterbalanced by a 7% increase in non-EU postgraduate research students and an 8% increase in non-EU taught postgraduate students


“While the biggest increases in first-year student numbers are among UK-based students, it seems clear that, despite the pandemic circumstances, UK higher education remains an attractive option for international students,” Essen-Fishman added to the report.

Within the European Union, Italy showed the largest enrolment increase at UK providers in 2020/21 than any other EU country. England’s providers revealed that Romania has replaced France in terms of student numbers. For Scottish providers, more students from Ireland were recorded.

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Outside the European Union, China remains the biggest exporter of students than any other foreign country. Over the period of five years, international students from China have grown to 48,225 or 50% from 2016/17 to 2020/21.


Following this giant market is India, which represents 19% of all non-EU enrolments in the 2020/21 academic year. Over the five-year period, the country strikingly surged with 67,660 students.


Reintroduction of a Post-Study Route


Seeing this attainment in the transnational education sector, the question to be asked is why has this success occurred? The majority of those in international education believe that the UK government’s reinstatement of its post-study work visa is a big factor.


On July 1, 2021, the UK government decided to pursue its new graduate immigration route wherein international graduates from the academic year of 2021 will have the opportunity to reside and look for employment in the communities of  England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland for a maximum of 2 years, or 3 years for doctoral students.


“In the year ending September 2021, there were 428,428 sponsored study visas granted (to both main applicants and their dependents), 143% (252,327) more than the previous year and 55% (152,077) higher than the year ending September 2019. Of the 428,428 sponsored visas granted, 51,684 (12%) were under General Student rules and 376,744 (88%) were under the new Student and Child Student routes introduced on the 5th October 2020,” Immigration statistics reported.

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Interpreting the data given by the Immigration:

  • With 135,457 visas granted, Chinese students had an increase of 13% and accounted for 32% of the total proportion.
  • India holds the second-highest sponsored study visa grants with 90,669 grants, 197% higher than the year ending September 2019.
  • Nigerian and Pakistani nationalities garnered the largest increase of 368% and 225% respectively. 


Foreign students, 538,615 in number, made up 27.5% of the total student population in the UK in the academic year 2019 to 2020. According to International Facts and Figures 2021, international students made a £40m net economic contribution to the UK economy per parliamentary constituency on average. 

Now, seeing this successful outcomethe growth of international student enrolment to more than 600,000 in the following academic yearis a revolutionary milestone for the UK government. This favorable result allows the government to open multiple doors of opportunities and to explore innovations in institutions, policies, and a better society for international students.

MSM VP Global - Suneetha Qureshi

MSM President - Global

Suneetha has worked for 15 years in the international education sector and 25 years overall for various industries, including her work for other industries. As president of MSM, she fortifies its business development outreach globally, particularly in the face of MSM’s foray into edtech-based recruitment via MSM Unify. She preserves the premium, value-adding services provided to each MSM partner institute, including dedicated teams on the ground, agent management, lead generation and inquiry management, application prescreening, and student and parent support through pioneering pre-departure briefing sessions.

She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.

















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