The figures from Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that the rise of more than 60,000 was driven by more enrolments from non-EU students, which grew by 23% in 2019/20.
“This brings the UK’s growth rate back in line with that seen in recent years in other international higher education markets”
The 408,825 non-EU students was an increase of over 59,000 from the previous year.
Enrolments from within the European Union remained largely stable, seeing a small rise of 1,215 students to hit 147,800.
In 2019/20, 35% of all non-EU students were from China and it continues to be the number source of international enrolments, with 141,870 students representing a 56% increase over five years since 2015/16.
The 55,465 students in UK higher education in 2019/20 from India is up from 16,890 in 2015/16 – representing a 228% increase over the five years, and is a further increase on the 42% hike witnessed in 2018/19.
The number one sending European country in 2019/20 was Italy with 14,585 students. In 2018/19, it sent 14,550 students.
From within the EU, France followed with 14,015 in 2019/20, slightly down from the 14,065 the previous year.
While non-EU students have driven the growth, not all countries increased the number of students coming to the country. For example, the number of Malaysia students have fallen by 23% over five years with 13,490 in 2019/20.
However, head of International Engagement (Non-EU) at Universities UK International Stephanie Harris said the organisation was “delighted with the increase in international enrolments shown in the that the 2019/20 HESA stats, with first year enrolments from non-EU countries increasing by 23%”.
“This brings the UK’s growth rate back in line with that seen in recent years in other international higher education markets,” she noted.
When the UK’s incoming graduate route was first announced in September 2019, it caused an increased interest in studying in the UK in certain markets, she explained.
“We can therefore expect it to have had an impact on these figures, especially for students who may have started later in the academic year.
“The UK government’s international education strategy published in March 2019 signalled a clear intent to grow the number of international students in the UK, and included a number of other commitments the sector has been working towards that may have contributed towards this increase in enrolments.”
A first year enrolment drop of 2% from EU students – predominantly due to decreasing postgraduate enrolments – was “concerning”, she added.
“This is a trend that has been present since the EU referendum but appears to have accelerated between 2018/19 and 2019/20.”
Eligibility rules for international students that UKRI introduced for its scholarships from 2020/21 as well as the UK’s association to the Horizon program will “enable and reassure European students considering the UK as a destination for their postgraduate studies”, Harris said.
“The effect of Brexit on undergraduate EU student is unlikely to be seen until 2021/22 when the combination of immigration rules and fee and loan support eligibility will take effect. UUK has previously outlined steps it would like to see the UK government take to mitigate this impact.”
While the sector will need to wait to see the next round of HESA statistics to understand the impacts the coronavirus pandemic has had on international student recruitment this year, the figures are promising, she indicated.
“These stats do however show us that the positive steps that the government and sector have taken to re-affirm their commitment to international students in 2019 has since led to more international students than ever choosing the UK as their study destination.”
The figures indicated that 22% of the UK’s higher education students were non-UK in 2018/19.
The ratio of international students was most prevalent at the full-time postgraduate level, where UK domestic students made up 42% of students. Some 49% hailed from non-EU countries, while the remaining 9% were from the EU.
In the 2019/20 academic year, 12 institutions enrolled more than 10,000 non-UK students, including four universities in London and two in Scotland.
University College London led the way with 20,170 international students, followed by The University of Manchester with 15,335, The University of Edinburgh with 14,625 and King’s College London with 13,475.
Coventry University enrolled the fifth most non-UK students with 13,445.
Of the 271 HE providers that reported student data to HESA, 109 providers enrolled at least 1,000 non-UK students. Some 99 recorded fewer than 100 non-UK students.