A total of 458,490 international students were studying in UK universities in the academic year 2017/18, 247,685 of whom were newly enrolled – an increase of about 4% and 5% respectively in one year.
“Broadly speaking, the results are positive for the UK university sector”
Over 100,000 Chinese students were enrolled in the UK last year, making up more than 20% of the total international cohort.
But while last year’s statistics showed a decline in non-EU enrolments and a 6% EU rise, this year’s picture is almost the opposite.
New enrolments from non-EU countries rose by 8%, with India growing for the first time since 2010, while those from the EU showed a drop – at a modest -1%.
UUKi director Vivienne Stern told The PIE News that these are positive results for the UK HE sector, although there is a “clear priority” to address Brexit uncertainty for current and prospective EU students.
“It’s fantastic to see growth in the number of international students studying in the UK. The 8% rise in non-EU enrolments is significant, and is a welcome sign that the UK continues to be one of the most attractive destinations for students worldwide,” she said, praising the work of campaigns such as Study UK, run by the British Council.
“Broadly speaking, today’s results can be seen as positive for the UK university sector. A clear priority this year must be to provide as much clarity and support as possible for current and potential EU students with concerns about Brexit.”
Stern added that UUKi will continue to push for a more generous post-study work visa for international students and an improved visa application process, along with pressing the government for clarity on EU student fees in the 2020/21 academic year.
Although the total EU student numbers have risen by 3%, about 700 fewer EU students have chosen the UK last year compared to 2016/17.
“Continued growth in China shows aspirations to study in the UK remain strong”
It is a modest decline, but it’s the first time that new enrolments from the EU have dipped since the rise 0f tuition fees in 2012, HESA press officer Simon Kemp told The PIE.
According to HEPI director Nick Hillman, the stall in EU numbers could be the product of two factors “balancing each other out,” with the soon-to-end availability of favourable conditions such as loans and lower fees mitigating Brexit uncertainty.
But as conditions are set to change post-Brexit, the figures could change too.
“There will be concern from universities that the drop in the number of EU enrolments precipitates a larger dip in numbers as the UK leaves the EU,” Stern explained.
In terms of source markets, Italy has overtaken Germany and France and is now the top country of origin for EU students enrolled in UK HE – although new enrolments were slightly lower for all three countries compared to the previous year.
For English UK chief executive Sarah Cooper, the shift is not surprising.
“Italy and China are UK ELT’s top source countries as well, so it is perhaps no coincidence that HE mirrors this: [the ELT sector] is a prime portal to UK HE – people who begin studying in this country are more likely to continue to a high level,” she explained.
Stakeholders noted more positive news in the growing non-EU figures, which highlighted India’s first positive change since 2010/11, when numbers started declining from a peak of 39,090 to 16,550 in 2016/17.
There were 12,465 newly-enrolled Indian students in 2017/18, up from 9,720 in the previous year, for a total of 19,750 students – placing India as the second non-EU source market, ahead of the US.
“India’s reversal… suggests the pent-up demand is finally finding its way to the UK, [but] sustainability of this growth hinges on doubling-down on outreach and delivering on experiences that support career advancement,” Studyportals’ executive vice president of global engagement and research Rahul Choudaha told The PIE.
“One day, sanity will prevail in our attitude to international students”
“Continued growth in China and reversal of trends with India reflect that aspirations to study in the UK remain strong. However, the students who are successfully able to translate those aspirations into reality are the ones who are relatively less sensitive to cost and immigration challenges,” Choudaha explained.
Far above India, China is driving most of the growth, with 40% of all non-EU new enrolments being accounted for by Chinese students, their proportion on a steady rise over the past few years.
Although this is not just applicable to the UK, some fear the increased reliance on China could be problematic for the industry.
“We do need to be careful of becoming over-reliant on a single country and we need to do even more to ensure similar growth from other parts of the world. One day, sanity will prevail in our attitude to international students,” said Hillman.
As for the predicted reshuffle in the top destination countries, with Australia snatching the UK’s second position, it’s safe to say it hasn’t happened just yet.
As of November 2018, there were 399,089 international students enrolled in Australian universities. However, although comparisons should be taken with a pinch of salt, this shows a 12% growth on 2017 figures, a higher growth rate than that of the UK’s.
The race is still on, but IEAA’s Phil Honeywood urged caution.
“We have to be very careful in identifying any definite ongoing momentum in Australia capturing market share off our UK cousins. Caution arises from both UK and Australia-specific geopolitical and market issues,” he told The PIE.
Honeywood argued that although Brexit is a “great unknown” for the UK industry, China exerts a far bigger political pressure on Australia, with unclear consequences for the industry. Also, a potential federal election in May could see negative commentary around population growth and market issues result in negative policy outcomes for the sector in Australia.
- Additional reporting by Anton Crace