What does the Journey to a Million mean for the global market?

Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser, UCAS

The past few years have been a rollercoaster period for international student mobility. Hot on the heels of Brexit, the pandemic struck, resulting in closed borders, social unrest, visa uncertainties, geopolitics and Zoom fatigue as learning went online. But students showed resilience and determination to progress with their studies – UCAS research, Where Next? What influences the choices international students make? found that 155,000 international students chose the UK as their destination of choice and begun their undergraduate studies.i

Brand UK HE has weathered the storm, with 88% of international applicants continuing to see the UK as a positive or very positive place to study.ii This puts the UK in prime position to capitalise on the Journey to a Million applicants. Where will this demand come from? Is it guaranteed? How can we meet the diverse and unique needs of international students? And what can the UK do to maintain its competitiveness, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level?

What does the data say about upcoming demand?

UCAS is projecting that international undergraduate applicants could increase by 60% to reach 241,500 by 2030 – with confidence ratings suggesting a growth of between 30% (+195,500) and 105% (+308,750). Beneath this headline figure, there are some fascinating nuances. As you’d expect, and aligned to modelling led by the Chinese digital marketing company, Sinorbis, China is set to remain the largest non-UK market for UK HE. Since 2020 China now has more applicants than two UK countries, namely, Wales and Northern Ireland).iii Indeed, looking at international school populations alone, where the language of instruction is English, more than 60% are found in Asia – a clear indicator of the popularity of overseas study.iv

However, data and local intelligencesuggests that the rate of growth will slow. At UCAS’ January 2023 equal consideration, applications from China declined for the first time (-4.2%), most likely due to disrupted learning and school assessment amid ‘Zero-COVID’ lockdowns.vi Nonetheless, all signs suggest that the UK remains a top choice for Chinese students studying abroad and education quality in the UK is widely recognised.vii That’s why it’s possible that 2030 will see applicant numbers exceed 50,000 (+52%) – more than total numbers who today apply from Wales and Northern Ireland combined, making China the second largest source market for UK HE – overtaking Scotland. 

Elsewhere, the trajectory for Indian applicants (an International Education Strategy (IES) priority country) is of a faster rate of growth, with demand set to reach around 40,000 (+175%) by 2030 – just 10,000 shy of those coming from China.viii Of additional note among the IES priority countries are Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, with demand set to climb significantly to reach 13,300 (+115%) and 7,000 (+233%) respectively.

Whilst EU recruitment has fallen by more than 50% following the UK’s departure from the EU, UCAS data suggests that the 2022 cycle saw the last notable drop in appetite. The remainder of the decade is likely to see a steadying of demand of between 18,000 – 24,000 EU applicants over the next few years. Thereafter, we could see a tale of two EUs, with applicants still applying from more economically developed nations, with minimal demand from newer EU members. 

Growth is far from guaranteed

Such promising demand from international markets presents significant opportunities to grow and diversify classrooms in UK universities and colleges. Nevertheless, the three disruptors of global competition, geopolitics and government policy loom large as potential, limiting factors. 

Pre-pandemic, competition was growing from other destination countries, namely the US (20% market share), China (9%), Canada (9%), and Australia (8%)ix – a trend which shows no sign of abating with 70% of respondents to the Where Next? research also applying to another country alongside the UK.In the past twelve months, Australia has reported a recovery of its international market, the Canadian government has announced an 18 month work permit extension for international students, and non-traditional overseas study destinations like Japan have set out their own ambitious pathways. Therefore, whilst growth is forecast, this will be against a strengthening global market that is truly open for business. 

In addition, tensions across the globe could have a rapid (and unforeseen) impact on the progression of students from specific nations – as we have seen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Lastly, there’s the potential for domestic UK government policy to shift, so as to affect the desire and/or ability of international students to choose the UK as their study destination. 

This means that understanding what students are looking to gain through a degree overseas is ever more important.

What matters to international students?

The survey, upon which the Where Next? UCAS research is largely based, gives us a few clues.xi We learn that for international students, it’s about much more than their education – three quarters (75%) of respondents want to experience life in a different country – the most common motivation for study abroad. Individuals are looking to fulfil a hierarchy of needs related to learning, living and employability. This finding is mirrored in results from a previous UCAS survey, which found that international applicants to UK HE are 10 percentage points more likely to be interested in meeting new people than home applicants, and 7 percentage points more likely to be interested in experiencing ‘university life’ and having fun.xii

Crucially, UCAS research also tells us that motivation to study differs by domicile, which means that personalisation of every part of the student experience – from outreach to enrolment – is critical.xiii Nigerian students are most interested in gaining skills to support them in their career; meanwhile, for Indian students, the most important factor is that HE options are of ‘better quality.’ That’s why UCAS is calling for the next iteration of the UK’s IES to endorse a nation-specific and action-led approach to promoting UK HE. 

It is by growing nation-level intelligence as to the different values, motivations and interests held within both established and emerging markets that the UK will be able to diversity its international recruitment, thereby cementing its position within an increasingly competitive global marketplace. This would have the additional (and welcomed) benefit of diversifying risk should high-volume markets be disrupted. 

How can the UK stand-out?

While the UK is clearly an attractive prospect for international applicants, choosing the UK for HE is not a foregone conclusion – evidence of the gaining of knowledge and skills is key. This aligns with findings from INTO University Partnerships which suggest a shift away from a focus on the prestige of individual universities or colleges, towards the pursuit of concrete outcomes from overseas HE – a learning experience that helps them develop critical knowledge and skills.xiv

For brand UK HE, this demonstrates the importance of data about outcomes for international graduates to sustain competitive advantage.xv Such findings are echoed by others including UKCISA, which is also calling for a renewed focus on developing the evidence base around international graduate outcomes.xvi It is also the case that the route into employment is important – individuals are five times more likely to rank landing a job in their destination country, relative to their country of domicile, as their top priority  – highlighting the importance of developing, maturing, and promoting the Graduate routexvii and the High Potential Individual (HPI) Visa route.xviii

A word of caution – how might the rising cost of living affect patterns in demand?

Notwithstanding such positive indicators, previous UCAS research from January 2022 did explore why prospective international students may be deterred from choosing the UK as their destination of choice.xix 69% of applicants surveyed identified high tuition fees and living costs as a top concern. This is felt particularly strongly in Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe, with 80% and 72% of applicants respectively identifying this as a primary barrier.

Similarly, the current 2023 UCAS new applicant survey highlights that the living costs and tuition fees are important to international students when making choices. 84% of international applicants state that living costs at university or college were ‘extremely important’ or ‘important’ when they decided where to apply, compared to 79% of UK applicants. Additionally, 79% of international applicants rate the cost of tuition fees at the university or college as ‘extremely important’ or ‘important’, compared to 61% of UK applicants. 

With the cost-of-living in the UK on the rise, there is a heightened need to capture a broader range of equalities data and contextual information about the background of international students to better target financial support. This will ensure that scholarships and financial bursaries reach those who need it most. 

Glimpses into the mindset of PG international students

As many of the undergraduate Journey to a Million cohort then subsequently embark on their postgraduate journey, the UK stands to be a key beneficiary. That’s why UCAS is investing in Myriad – to serve up useful, impartial, and timely information and advice prospective postgraduate students around the world. It is a single postgraduate gateway for international students – covering courses, accommodation, part-time jobs, and scholarships, all in one place and under the independent and trusted UCAS brand.

Currently, Nigeria, Ghana, India, Pakistan, and the US are the top five countries for Myriad usage and engagement. Meanwhile, analysis of the fastest growing users of the platform, suggests new and emerging pockets of interest in UK HE – whilst Nigeria comes out top, the remaining four spots of the top five are held by Filipino, Cameroonian, Malaysian and Moroccan users. This is great news as universities and colleges all over the world consider further innovations to diversify and grow their international student populations.

By investing in the postgraduate architecture today, UCAS is laying the foundations to support future growth from the undergraduate graduates of today and tomorrow. This ties in to the UK’s IES’s commitment to streamline the journey of international students, from application to graduation and beyond.xx

One final thought – lessons from South Korea

Whilst efforts at home are concentrated (and rightly so) on upcoming demographic growth, as the saying goes, what goes up, must come down, and population projections rarely flatline. In Korea, the opposite challenges exist – projections of acute demographic decline combined with declining job opportunities outside of Seoul present a grim outlook for their HE sector with a report by Seoul National University and the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs anticipating that South Korea could lose up to half of its universities within 25 years.xxi

At home, beyond 2030, current projections suggest that the UK 18-year-old population will experience year-on-year falls until around 2040 (when population levels will be about the same as 2022). This gives a glimpse into the long-term challenge – how to create supply within an education system with the capability to evolve and adapt to peaks and troughs in demand.

Emerging from the pandemic, the UK HE sector has a relatively clean bill of health, but how do we further strengthen the UK’s competitive position and capitalise on the forecasted growth? It’s time to harness the benefits of personalisation – we must understand the unique needs of every one of the 241,500 individuals who are set to choose the UK as their new home. It is the individuals behind the numbers that will bring diversity of voice and experience to our HE sector – this, we must all champion. 

i UCAS (2021), Where Next? What influences the choices international students make?

ii UCAS (2021), Where Next? The experience of international students connecting to UK higher education.

iii The Pie News (March 2022), UK: Chinese student numbers set to 'rise 70% by 2030’.

iv ICEF Monitor (September 2020), Continued growth for international K-12 schools with greater emphasis on mid-market segment.

v BNN Bloomberg (December 2022), Top Rankings for UK Universities Disguise Risk to Business Model.

vi The Independent (May 2022), 'Zero-COVID' lockdowns cancel AP exams for students in China.

vii China Daily (September 2022), More Chinese students favor UK for overseas study.

viii UK Government (2019), International Education Strategy - global potential, global growth.

ix Project Atlas (2020), Global Mobility Trends.

x UCAS (2022), Where Next? What influences the choices international students make?

xi Ibid.

xii New applicant decisions survey 2021, ‘Why do you want to go to university?’

xiii UCAS (2022), Where Next? What influences the choices international students make?

xiv INTO University Partnerships (October 2021), Gen Z Focuses on Outcomes When Choosing University.

xv Universities UK International (September 2021), International student recruitment: Why aren’t we second?

xvi Anne Marie Graham (March 2022), Now, more than ever, we need to expand our knowledge of international student outcomes.

xvii Home Office (July 2021), The Graduate route: information for international students.

xviii Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (July 2021), UK innovation strategy.

xix UCAS (2021), Where Next? The experience of international students connecting to UK higher education.

xx Department for Education and Department for International Trade (2021), International Education strategy: 2021 update.

xxi University World News (December 2021), South Korea could lose half its universities within 25 years.

Carys Willgoss

Principal Policy Adviser, UCAS

Carys leads the Progression to HE Team to ensure that our data and insight influences the shape of the sector. Since joining UCAS in October 2014, Carys has taken a lead role in understanding the impact of the changing policy environment on us and our customers. Most recently, authoring two landmark reports: Who are the ‘future nurses’? – understanding the spike in appetite to study nursing post-pandemic – and Where next? – shedding light on how and why international students make choices. She also led on a two-year project to develop and launch our corporate strategy, Discover Your Future. Carys previously held the post of Postgraduate Admissions Manager at Arden University. A linguist by trade, graduating from the University of Bath with a first-class honours degree in 2011, Carys also has a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration.