The data, from the academic year 2014/15, also shows that for the first time there are now more first-year enrolments from the US than from India.
China remains the top sending country from outside of the EU, with Chinese students accounting for 34% of non-EU first-year enrolments, equal to enrolments in 2013/14.
“Other countries are currently gaining at the UK’s expense”
Figures show a 1% increase in US students enrolling in their first year, overtaking India to become the second largest source country in first-year enrolments.
First-year enrolments from India dropped 10% from the previous year, after an 8% drop last year, while Nigeria and Canada also displayed a drop of 8% in 2014/15.
While the number of first-year enrolments for non-EU students fell, the total number of non-EU students enrolled rose by 1%.
However, stakeholders in the higher education sector have expressed concern that the small increase shows the UK is not holding its own against global competitors.
Gordon Slaven, director of higher education at the British Council, said it is “alarming” that the UK’s growth is so small.
“Other countries are currently gaining at the UK’s expense,” he commented.
“And the government and sector must work together to ensure that our world class higher education system remains attractive and accessible to every ambitious young person in the world.”
Dominic Scott, chief executive of UKCISA, said that while the small increase is disappointing, it is not surprising considering negative public discourse around around immigration and changing visa rules in 2013/14.
“What it goes to show though is that whilst we know that the UK is still a very popular destination, ministerial announcements that ‘visa applications to our universities have risen significantly during the period’ are clearly wide of the mark,” he told The PIE News.
“These first year enrolment figures obviously just show the impact on recent changes more directly,” he added.
“It is essential that the UK government presents a welcoming climate for genuine international students and academics”
Slaven meanwhile argued that the figures show international (non-EU) students “have never been so crucial to UK higher education”.
“A year-on-year decrease of British students (by 2%) and EU students (by 1%) means that the 1% growth of students coming from around the world is essential for the sustainability and continued excellence of our universities.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said that the UK should be doing better, and has the potential to be one of the world’s fastest growing destinations for international students.
“It is essential that the UK government presents a welcoming climate for genuine international students and academics, and ensures that visa and immigration rules are proportionate and communicated appropriately,” she urged.
The HESA data also shows the number of first year enrolments for EU students, excluding the UK increased by 1%, while the total enrolments from EU students decreased by 1%.