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“Modest” UCAS rise should be cause for concern

The number of international UG applications to UCAS has gone up by a “modest” 0.7%, but the UK could see a drop in the full year’s numbers, warn stakeholders. 
February 15 2024
2 Min Read

The number of international undergraduate applications to UCAS has gone up by a 0.7% – but the figures are “partial” and the UK could even see a drop in the full year’s numbers, warn stakeholders. 

Figure released today by UCAS show that 115,730 international students applied to UG places by the January deadline.

While applications from China were up 3% (+910 applications), Turkey up 37% (+710) and Canada up 14% (+340), figures from Nigeria and India decreased, by -46% and -4%, respectively.

Jo Johnson, the former universities minister, said that despite some commentators saying numbers shouldn’t still be rising, the UK should remember the position it has in the sector globally. 

“We shouldn’t be wanting to drive numbers down, other countries look at our success in attracting them and are envious,” Johnson told the BBC’s The Today Programme.

“I think it’s really crucial to take into account that the government has announced a number of measures that are having a very material impact on students in the UK.” 

The figures outlined by UCAS should also not be “cause for concern for domestic students”, the body stressed.

“The figures are very partial, only relating to undergraduates and we’re very early on in the recruitment cycle – we saw a very big decline in the number of applications that translated into enrolments [last year],” Johnson added. 

Also echoing that point was Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, who made the case that there should be cause for concern if the sector sees a drop after the full recruitment cycle. 

“There is cause to be worried about that drop last year – something that is partly down to government policy, government rhetoric. This is a very competitive landscape, we’re in competition with very big systems. 

“It’s unstable, and that’s seriously bad for universities, because they need international students to fund domestic education,” she noted. 

Recent data from KCL indicated that the UK’s current funding model is precarious, and that institutions can’t rely on overseas student funding to keep afloat.

Stern was stark with her warning, saying, “We will struggle to deal with the fact that universities lose around £1bn a year teaching domestic students.

“I think in the end it will make it more difficult for universities to be able to take in home students.”

A Sunday Times article alleging that international students were getting in on lower grades was again mentioned. Stern pointed out that the article was comparing foundation courses to full courses and thus missed the point of the programs.

Johnson, however, did relent that it raised some questions about quality and standards.

“The figures are very partial, only relating to undergraduates”

“The sector is taking it seriously, there is a review of comparable admissions going on to ensure that there is a level playing field for foreign applicants and domestic applicants, and making sure there isn’t a low-quality back door into the sector,” he said.

He also reiterated the economic value of international students in general – and that it’s important to “restore public confidence” that both overseas and domestic students are “complimentary”. 

“[International student value] enables universities to put on courses that wouldn’t otherwise be offered to domestic students at all,” Johnson added.

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