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.
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
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
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
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)
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.
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.
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.