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UK student recruitment numbers down, but is that the whole story?

  • 30 May 2024

***Next Wednesday 5th June we are hosting a webinar on the Australian Universities Accordyou can register here.***

  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Matteo Quacquarelli, Vice President of Strategy and Analytics at QS Quacquarelli Symonds.

With confirmation that the UK government won’t change or axe the Graduate route visa, the release of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) Review, the UK’s net migration figures being announced, and the start of a general election campaign, it’s been a busy month for higher education data people.

With a tumultuous few weeks now behind us, and the September 2024 intake on the horizon, we’ve decided to take a look at our student enrolment data and give our view on current student demand for UK study.

The big picture doesn’t tell the whole story

Across our student enrolment partners, – who vary in size, specialism, and market position- offers for postgraduate study are down by 18% year on year (YoY), compared to this time in 2023. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the net migration figures falling. It’s another indication of the impact from removing the dependency visa.

Further down the funnel, the picture gets murkier.

Offers accepted by prospective postgraduate students are down 33.89% YoY. This is a three-year low in offers accepted by May of the annual recruitment cycle.

While recruitment pipelines are diminished, deposits are only marginally down YoY (2%) and are up on 2022 performance by 2%. It’s crucial for the institutions trying to shore up their finances, that demand in core segments – those who make deposits early – remains resilient. With a weakened pipeline of students for 2025 and beyond, we’re likely to see a drop in deposits and enrollments, so maximising performance this year is key.

All is not equal

If a higher proportion of international students are paying their deposits at this point in the year, what’s the doom and gloom? The overall picture shows us a slight downward trend, but 2% isn’t catastrophic. But not all UK universities are equal, and the overall picture isn’t reflective of many universities’ reality.

Let’s see what happens when we segment our data into three clusters.

The Russell Group universities are significant drivers in the overall picture. For our Russell Group university partners, we’re seeing renewed demand from China, with deposits from Chinese students up 73% YoY, and applications and offer acceptances increasing too.

With a decade of QS International Student Survey data, we know Chinese students consider a good ranking and reputation for their subject area to be among the top reasons for choosing a university.  The number of Chinese enrolments remaining high is a good sign for Russell Group universities and other top-performing UK institutions.

51% of Chinese students said that it’s important their chosen university has a good reputation for their chosen subject area. 47% said that it’s important the university is well ranked.

QS International Student Survey 2023

The post-92 universities  and other modern universities are experiencing more significant headwinds.

At the post-92 universities we partner with, overall postgraduate offers, accepted offers and deposits are down 35%, 39% and 18% respectively. These negative swings are caused by a substantial decline in Indian and Nigerian postgraduate students. Offers accepted by Indian students are down 44% YoY, and 40% for Nigerian students.

It’s a similar picture at the modern universities we partner with. Postgraduate offers, offers accepted, and deposits are down 36%, 51% and 56% respectively, with the drop in Nigerian and Indian postgraduate students being the main driver.

The key takeaway

The profile of growth within the UK has shifted more favourably towards the Russell Group of universities, with China – a market known to prioritise prestigious universities – being the main driver of growth.

Universities who have experienced ‘hockey stick’ growth over the past two years, with an over-reliance on recruitment from South Asia and West Africa are showing to be the most exposed. The UK government’s decision to remove dependency visas and the wider macro-economic challenges facing some of these source market nations mean those universities are struggling for the September 2024 intake.

Our recommendation:

  • UK universities, regardless of rank or market position, should continue to leverage the UK’s reputation for high-quality education. As revealed in the International Graduate Outcomes 2024 report, 59% of respondents chose to study in the UK because of the perceived quality of the study experience.
  • Universities need to proactively diversify their priorities (in terms of markets, portfolio and pricing) to reduce recruitment volatility and drive longer-term financial sustainability. To tap into a wider market of global students, and offset these risks, universities should accelerate into a multi-modal recruitment engine, comprising trans-national education, traditional on-campus delivery, and virtual learning.

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