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Growth of UK higher education as a top destination for international students

With the world going through turbulent years, predicting the commitment of students studying abroad is harder than ever.

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"How the global cost of living crisis impacts applicants into actual students will be one we’ll be monitoring closely"

The good news is that the latest UCAS June 30 deadline data reveals 135,000 international students have applied to undergraduate study in the UK this year, an increase of 3% on 2021. It is only 3,900 applicants down (2.8%) on the 2020 peak of 139,000 undergraduate applicants

These figures appear to demonstrate that the global pandemic has not deterred non-EU students in following their dream of studying abroad and specifically in the UK, which is encouraging as key competing destinations reopen their doors. Australia scrapping Covid vaccination rules and Canada launching a new $80m scholarship scheme are demonstrations that this competition will only intensify in the 2023 cycle.

How the global cost of living crisis impacts applicants into actual students will be one we’ll be monitoring closely.

China, as expected, leads the way again with a 10% increase, to 31,400 applicants. China applicants have more than doubled since 2018. The continuing geopolitical risks in the region means the risk of 23% of applications (which disproportionately impacts more selective universities and programs) from one country needs to be kept at the forefront of contingency planning and actions.

A concerning trend is the drop to 23,610 EU applicants, a 54% decline on the EU applicants peak in 2019 of 50,130.

Applications from India grew by 20%, with Nigeria increasing the most by 58%. The 5,290 applications from Nigeria, compared to 3,360 last year, is the acceleration of an upward trend since 2018.

Nigeria is the largest African market for British universities. Most African countries show increased year-on-year growth. South Africa (980 applicants) and Kenya (890 applicants) still remain the second and third largest African markets. Africa overall remains a market with strong growth potential as sector looks to drive greater diversification from more traditional markets. Latin America remains a relatively untapped market too with low growth.

“Latin America remains a relatively untapped market too with low growth”

We know from UCAS research that the most common motivation for studying abroad is to experience life in a different country – as chosen by 75% of respondents. However, as we look to diversify and de-risk from over reliance on a few core markets, understanding the subtle differences in the motivations in each key country will be key.

When it comes to students from Nigeria, the most important factor to study abroad is to gain skills to support them in their career (chosen by 80%), and they are more likely than many to be interested in employment after graduation (52%). The graduate route, is clearly appealing to Nigeria as it allows graduates to kick-start their careers in the UK after they have finished their studies.

UCAS’s strategic role in supporting and enhancing this journey to UK HE has been reemphasised in the latest update to DfE’s International Education Strategy from May 2022. Therefore, we continue to invest and make progress – in consultation with the sector – via the UCAS Hub (undergraduate) and our new Myriad by UCAS App (postgraduate).

Myriad is now being used by users in more than 180 territories, with over 90% of eligible universities and colleges represented. It is helping students in their postgraduate study decision making, allowing users to research UK postgraduate courses and funding options, in the language of their choice. As well as connecting them to accommodation options near the campus, town, or city they are looking to study.

UCAS has a mission to connect the world to HE and these positive figures show the value of that mission.

About the author: This is a sponsored post by Chris Kirk. Chris was appointed director of UCAS International in June 2022.

Having worked in the professional and technical education sector for almost two decades, Chris has successfully led the digital transformation of a number of career-changing products with users always at the heart. 

He describes himself as being fixated on how technology can be leveraged to create, deliver, and capture deeper insights and value, which is why he’s particularly excited about the recent launch of Myriad by UCAS for international postgraduate students.

He told us that he’d really enjoyed his first few months at UCAS and the clear need for UCAS to create richer insights and even more personalised and supported journeys for undergraduate and postgraduate international students looking to connect to the UK’s world class higher education system.

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