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UK hits 600,000 international student target 10 years early

UK higher education providers hosted 605,130 international students in the 2020/21 academic year, hitting its 600,000 target a decade earlier than hoped, figures from Higher Education Statistics Agency have indicated.

Two institutions in the UK's capital city – University College London and King's College London – were included in the five institutions hosting the most international students overall. Photo: pexels

Overall, numbers from Malaysia saw a decline of 30% over the five years, dropping below enrolments from Nigeria and Pakistan

Of the international students in the UK in 2020/21, 452,225 were recorded as non-EU students, while 152,905 hailed from within the European Union. Overall higher education students in the country stood at 2,751,865 in 2020/21, marking an increase of 9% from 2019/20.

For international students, the 48,505 increase is equivalent to an 8.7% rise on 2019/20 figures when non-UK students totalled 556,625.

First year students from India rose by 27% in 2020/21, while those from China fell for the first time by 5%. The statistics showed that while UK-domestic first year students rose by 13%, overall non-UK first year students rose by 4%.

In 2021, a refreshed UK international education strategy restated a commitment to the target of hosting 600,000 international students by 2030.

Along with the rise among first year domestic students, taught postgraduate degree candidates also rose for both domestic and international students, HESA noted.

“Despite fears about the potential effect of the pandemic on international student numbers, the 2020/21 Student data still shows an overall increase in international first year students,” Lucy Van Essen-Fishman, lead policy & research analyst at HESA said.

“First year first degree student numbers from the EU are up by 8%”

“First year first degree student numbers from the EU are up by 8%, only slightly below the rate of increase for first year students overall; EU-domiciled postgraduate student enrolments are also up, but the rate of increase is smaller.”

Essen-Fishman added that EU applicants maybe have been encouraged not to defer their studies, as 2020/21 was the final year they would be guaranteed home fee status.

The number of international first year students from outside the EU is down slightly from 74,975 in 2019/20 to 73,455 in 2020/21, the decline is “counterbalanced by a 7% increase in non-EU postgraduate research students and an 8% increase in non-EU taught postgraduate students”, she continued.

Non-EU postgraduate students totalled 212,515 students in 2020/21 while there were 34,015 non-EU postgraduate research students.

“While the biggest increases in first year student numbers are among UK-based students, it seems clear that, despite the pandemic circumstances, UK higher education remains an attractive option for international students,” Essen-Fishman.

In 2020/21, 32% of all non-EU students were from China accounting for a total of 143,820 students. In the five years leading up to 2020/21, number of students from China has increased by 48,225 or 50% over, HESA noted.

“While the numbers of student enrolments from India are not as high as from China, there has been a notable increase of 67,660 over the five-year period,” the agency added.

Acting head of Policy and Global Engagement at Universities UK International Stephanie Harris noted that the UK has reached the recruitment target set out in its international education strategy “well ahead of schedule”.

“This growth is testament to the perseverance shown by the students themselves, and by our members, those across the wider sector, and government, who have worked collaboratively to ensure students from around the world continue to be welcomed in the UK.

“We can be particularly proud of achieving this target during such a challenging recruitment year due to Covid-19 restrictions. I look forward to continuing our work with sector partners to create the best possible conditions and student experience for those who study at our universities.”

With “large increases” in both 2019/20 and 2020/21, students from India represent 19% of all non-EU enrolments in 2020/21 – equivalent to 84,555 students.

The third most common source market for non-EU students was Nigeria, accounting for 21,305, slightly more than the 19,220 from the US. Hong Kong was the fifth most common nationality, reaching 16,665 students – similar to the 16,870 students from Hong Kong recorded in 2016/17.

Overall, numbers from Malaysia saw a decline of 30% over the five years, dropping below enrolments from Nigeria and Pakistan, HESA said, falling to 11,510 in 2020/21.

Within the EU, Italian students represented the most enrolled cohort at UK providers in 2020/21 reaching 14,605 students in total. This was followed by France (14,090 students) and Romania (12,860 students).

For providers in England, Romania has replaced France for second position in student enrolment numbers from the EU, HESA noted, adding that more students from Ireland had enrolled than any other EU country at providers in Scotland.

A total of 2,375 students from Ireland at Scottish providers was slightly more than the 2,360 students from Germany in 2020/21.

The institutions hosting the most international students at all levels were: University College London (23,360 international students); The University of Manchester (17,625); The University of Edinburgh (15,590); King’s College London (15,550); and Coventry University (13,760).

The figures also revealed that 488,095 students were studying with UK providers but based wholly overseas. The transnational education figures showed that a total of 409,165 non-EU students were registered or studying for an award with a UK HE provider. The figure within the EU was 78,930.

HESA added that many international and work placements for UK students took place remotely, but that the data still shows that remote study abroad programs or work placements appear in our dataset as either abroad or on placements, as they would if those programs were taking place in person.

“Although it seemed possible that fewer students would choose to embark on study abroad programs or work placements knowing that those programs would not take place in person, we saw no unusual year-on-year change in the number of students on work placements or studying abroad,” Essen-Fishman added.

A further open data publication Higher Education Student Data, including more detailed breakdowns from the 2020/21 HESA Student, Student Alternative, Aggregate Offshore, and ITT records, will be released in February, HESA said.

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