Applications from China dropped by -4.2% compared to last year but still beat pre-pandemic levels (27,710 in 2023 vs 21,250 in 2020) and were more than double those from five years ago.
Additionally, 5,680 applications came from students in Hong Kong, down from 6,010 last year.
The dip is thought to be in part due to travel restrictions that had only just been lifted in China when applications closed in January 2023.
“Despite Covid issues and disrupted learning in China and Hong Kong, the UK has had its second highest ever number of [equal consideration data deadline] applicants from China,” said Chris Kirk, director of UCAS International. “We expect the recent lifting of travel restrictions to increase applications between now and the summer.”
Jon Santangelo, spokesperson and senior consultant at Chinese study abroad umbrella company BOSSA, said this could be the “inevitable start of a long-term decline, which has accelerated given the changing economic and demographic situations” in China, but that the trend is not UK specific.
Indian applications increased by 5.4%, reaching a new peak of 9,130 students, while Nigerians increased by 23.1% to 2,930.
Although not all international students apply via UCAS, the trends mirror those in recently released 2021/22 HESA data, which showed a surge in the number of Indian and Nigerian students enrolled in UK universities.
“Reforms such as the Graduate Route are starting to pay off”
Hollie Chandler, head of policy (Higher Education) at the Russell Group, said that increasing demand from countries like India and Nigeria shows “reforms such as the Graduate Route are starting to pay off”.
The UK government is debating whether to reduce the time that international graduates can stay and work in the UK from two years to six months, in a move widely contested by the sector.
Other top non-EU application source countries include the US (5,800), Singapore (3,610) and the United Arab Emirates (3,570). All of these regions saw application numbers increase.
Applications from EU countries dropped by 2% year-on-year, with the figures less than half of what they were before the 2016 Brexit vote. Some EU countries did experience growth on last year, including Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Netherlands.
Ireland remained the top source country in the EU with 5,010 applications (vs 5,100 in 2022), followed by France with 2,690 applications (vs 2,700 in 2022).
The total number of applications via the platform, including UK students, fell by -2.3% but was higher than pre-pandemic levels.
“This is another complex cycle with a myriad of global and national factors impacting demand, all within the context of an increasing demographic and high employment rates,” said UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant.