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International Student Recruitment: why we shouldn’t hit the panic button just yet

  • 14 November 2023
  • By Alex Berka

A recent report highlighted that a large part of the UK Higher Education sector had seen a decline in enrolments from both India and Nigeria in their September 2023 intakes. The news prompted a swathe of internal reviews amongst universities, keen to understand such unexpected shifts. It is now important to establish whether this change marks the beginning of a long-term trend for the sector, or whether it is more of a minor blip in institutional recruitment strategies, especially when set in the context of the huge growth from Nigeria in recent years, with Nigerian study visas issued by the Home Office rising from 6,798 (2017) to 59,053 (2022).

Using data from a sample of over 16,000 offer holders of QS’ partner institutions for the January 2024 intake, as well as web traffic data from our student-facing website, we can illustrate a more mixed picture for the year ahead.

Across the whole dataset, there has been a considerable fall in the number of Nigerian offer-holders, a drop of 40.5% (declining from 4,405 in Jan 2023 to 2,619 in Jan 2024). Such shifts appear to echo the findings from Enroly in September and would suggest that the volatility of the Nigerian market is here to stay. There are a number of factors driving these changes – the cap on dependent family members visas in the UK, fluctuations in the Nigerian currency and a more competitive in-market, recruitment landscape—(According to Open Doors data there was a 12% uplift in Nigerian students going to the US to study in 2022)—all no doubt played their part in creating a perfect storm for UK universities and their recruitment strategies.

By contrast, the Indian market tells a considerably more positive story. Here there has been a 46% uplift in the number of offer-holders, rising from 2,523 at this point in the cycle for Jan 2023 to 3,688 for Jan 2024. This would appear to suggest something of a rebound for the Indian market, after stabilising in September. It also echoes a trend seen in web traffic data on, which has seen Indian visitors interested in the UK more than quadruple between 2013 and 2022. The caveat here is that the offer acceptance rate for Indian candidates has declined from 52% to 30% between January 2023 and January 2024. However, only a minority of UK universities have a large enough January intake to measure, and our data comparison may be somewhat affected by the timing that our partner institutions upload data to our systems. It is therefore important to take a measured approach to future intakes when considering the implications for institutional recruitment strategies.

These shifts reiterate the notion that universities have proactively responded to the situation in Nigeria by increasing overall offer volumes and shifting offers away from Nigeria to India and other growing markets. However, if this is true, then it means that recruitment in India is likely to become significantly more difficult in the future and that the competitive landscape will only intensify. With increasing numbers of Indian students going to North America and Australia, the battle for share of voice will become ever more strained. Data from our International Student Survey suggests that prospective students looking to study in the UK will consider at least 3 country destinations for their studies.  This in itself will invariably lead to more offers issued and lower conversion metrics for all institutions concerned. Developing a compelling and unique value proposition to take to students in India will be essential for universities if they are to continue to recruit from there.

Regardless of the importance of India to the sector, it is clear that further diversification will be critical to offsetting the decline in Nigerian volumes for the future. Few markets can sustain the pipeline volumes that China and India have, which means that universities will need to be adaptable and agile when planning ahead, as what might be fertile ground for recruitment one year may not be so fruitful for subsequent intakes. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that the focus is largely on recruiting post-graduate students. All of which is likely to lead to an increase in workloads for university recruitment and admissions teams. The decline in offer acceptance is likely to translate through to additional effort at the bottom and middle of the funnel to ensure that institutions can establish meaningful connections with their candidates, making it more important than ever that universities work with agents and other partners who can match the right students with the right destination.

QS Quacquarelli Symonds is the premier global provider of analytics, insights and services for the higher education sector, powered by a mission to enable motivated people anywhere in the world to fulfil their potential through educational achievement, international mobility, and career development.

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1 comment

  1. Ros Lucas says:

    Does this reflect more on-line take-ups?

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