This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Janet Ilieva, Founder and Director at Education Insight, and Vangelis Tsiligiris, an Associate Professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University.
The big picture: the collapse of EU demand for UK higher education
The recent data release from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that global demand for UK higher education continued to expand.
There were almost 680,000 international students in 2021/22, 12% more than the previous year. The UK continued to build on the momentum achieved during the pandemic, when national borders remained open, and international travel was less disrupted than in other countries. Unlike most international study destinations, student mobility to the UK did not decline. The reintroduction of post-study work visas in 2021 aligned the UK with other countries and further boosted international student demand.
To gain a better understanding of shifts in international student mobility to the UK, this analysis focuses on full-time international students. In 2021/22, there were 636,060 international students in full-time study.
The overall growth in international students masks severe declines in EU student numbers, which fell by 32,080. Most declines were concentrated in entry to bachelor’s degree programmes, which dipped by 65% (24,215 fewer students). As a result, fewer than 13,000 EU students started first degree programmes in 2021/22, compared with over 37,000 in the previous year. EU entry to postgraduate study dipped by 40% (9,235 fewer entrants).
The reductions in EU undergraduate entrants significantly exceeded the modest increases in non-EU demand for undergraduate degrees. As a result, the number of newly enrolled non-UK full-time undergraduate students declined by 12% (i.e., almost 14,000 fewer students).
Significant reductions in the proportions of undergraduate students
Considerable increases in demand from traditional master’s degree markets like India, Pakistan and Nigeria contributed to growth in postgraduate taught (PGT) programmes, which significantly outweighed the reductions in EU entrants.
Until 2021/22, there were more international students at the undergraduate level than those in postgraduate programmes. The growth in the non-EU demand for PGT programmes contributed to a significant growth in the proportions of postgraduate students which increased from 47% in 2020/21 to 54% in 2021/22.
In 2021/22, almost one in four students in UK higher education was international. Increases in non-EU students at the postgraduate level contributed to this, whereas the number of full-time home and EU students declined. Non-UK students on full-time postgraduate courses reached 64% of the overall student population in the UK (59% non-EU and 5% EU students), up from 56% (49 non-EU and 7% EU students) in 2020/21.
The decline in the presence of EU students and the dominance of India and China as source countries for international students are likely to impact the internationalisation of the classroom experience. For example, classrooms can be dominated by students from one country, diminishing the opportunity to expose students to a more international classroom environment. This inhibits the risk of diluting one of the critical elements of the value proposition of UK higher education, particularly postgraduate study, which has been the co-creation of knowledge in a multinational learning environment.
The shift towards PGT means a much shorter recruitment cycle, with most of the student numbers needing to be replenished annually. This puts additional pressure on UK higher education institutions (HEIs) to invest resources in their recruitment campaigns and compete more aggressively with their regional and international rivals. In turn, this imposes substantial pressure on operational margins.
It also means a much higher number of visas issued. Unlike a typical undergraduate student, who stays on average of three years in the UK, master’s students typically stay for less than one year. This explains why more visas are issued to Indian than to Chinese students, even though the number of Chinese students is still significantly higher than those from India. The main difference is the relatively small proportion of Indian students enrolling in first-degree programmes.
The higher turnover in visa issuance adds pressure on the relevant public authorities. Also – and most pertinently, given recent news – any potential restrictive changes in the visa policy framework will impact UK HEIs’ international student recruitment immediately.
The future of postgraduate research students is uncertain – declines in EU students contributed to a 6% drop in full-time entrants. More granular data on PhD entry, at the country level and by funding source, is required to build a fuller picture.
The attainment of the UK higher education international student number target much earlier than anticipated is a positive development. However, this comes with an overconcentration of PGT recruitment through a handful of international markets. This imposes several risks for the UK higher education sector, including:
- High operational risk, emerging from the high turnover of PGT students and the reliance on a few key markets.
- Significantly reduced geographical diversification of international students. An analysis for Universities UK International shows that 82% of UK universities and colleges were heavily reliant on one or two markets for the recruitment of their PGT students in 2020/21.
- The risk of negative impact on the international student experience from diluting the multinational profile of the classroom.
- Higher exposure to visa policy risk, given possible restrictive changes in the UK and a subsequent liberal policy response by competitor countries.
UK higher education is now experiencing the impact of Brexit and the growing competition from other traditional, for example Canada, the USA and Australia) and non-traditional, for example Germany, the Netherlands, China destination countries for international students, particularly those from the EU. For decades, many HEIs took international student recruitment for granted, and there was little concerted effort to recruit EU students, whose financial contribution equalled that of home students. Europe is home to 18 million students who, beyond the financial contribution, add substantial value to the student learning experience at UK universities. Any future iteration of the UK’s International Education Strategy needs a focus on the EU, alongside other priority countries.
New forms of transnational education, and broader higher education capacity building in source countries and regions for international students, allow more students to pursue undergraduate studies nearer to their homes. The trend is now for international students to reduce the total cost of studying by completing their undergraduate studies locally, before continuing abroad for one or two years of postgraduate study. This is also likely to contribute to a higher visa issue rate, which will not necessarily increase the overall international student population.
The emerging policy discourse questioning the high issuance of international student visas misplaces the focus, from students and their needs to their immigration status. Unlike the USA, where international students are defined as ‘non-immigrant visitors temporarily in the USA to study’, the UK treats international students as immigrants. As a result, they are counted in the migration figures. The shift towards postgraduate master’s programmes means a higher volume of visas, and students staying for much shorter durations compared with those on bachelor programmes. Increasingly, students apply to study at universities in more than one country. To our knowledge, the UK does not collect information on how many of the issued visas have been used by students, vs those that have been issued student visas but never used them because the students chose to study elsewhere.
However, the recent growth in issued student visas needs to be contextualised historically. International mobility to the UK plateaued between 2009 and 2019. Over that period, the number of visas issued increased by 1.7%. This is in stark contrast to double-digit growth in other countries. For the first time in 2019, the UK dropped to third place as a global study destination behind the USA and Australia. Since UNESCO started tracking international mobility flows, the UK had always maintained its position as the most significant study destination, second only to the USA.
The rebound in global demand since 2019 aided UK higher education to reclaim that position – but for how long is very uncertain.