What does the Journey to a Million mean for international admissions?

Chris Kirk, Director of UCAS International, UCAS

The Journey to a Million projection of a 60% increase in international undergraduate applicants would take the UK to over 250,000 international applicants via UCAS in the 2030 cycle. 

Read more about how UCAS is building a world-class international experience Impact Report

The reality though for those working in international student recruitment is that demand does not always translate cleanly into new students. Unlike domestic applicants who are largely only applying close to home, the plethora of local and global options competing for each international student sees just over half of these applicants convert to accepted students. So rather than getting caught up in the 92,000 additional applicants, for this essay lets imagine we are presented with the opportunity for the UK to add 50,000 additional international students a year to our undergraduate population.  

This scenario instantly draws me to consider two big questions. Firstly, can we? And secondly, should we?  

Can the UK accommodate an extra 50,000 international students a year by 2030?

Based on how well the sector has accommodated postgraduate taught (PGT) growth over the last few years, I think the answer to this is a simple and resounding, yes. In one year alone, between 2020/21 and 2021/2022, PGT international enrolments jumped by over 83,000 students to 326,000.i. There are obvious demand-side logistical challenges to growth on this scale which are considered across the Journey to a Million essay collection. But if the sector has done it once, I don’t see why it can’t be done again. One thing UK HE proves time and again is how resilient and scalable it is when it wants to be.

What cannot be sacrificed within this growth is the student experience. Do read the thoughtful piece by Anne Marie Graham, Chief Executive, UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) on What does the Journey to a Million mean for the international student experience? Long-term sustainability is built on the UK delivering on its perceived brand promise of world-class, high-quality higher education. Growth cannot dilute this if we want International Education to continue to be a true UK export success story. 

At this point, I do want to call out the need for more support for admissions teams specifically. More than any, they feel the pain of booming demand, often without the investment in the people and technology to cope. The more complex nature of international applications and visa compliance requirements adds significant administrative burden, and a potential increase in risk. UCAS has a key role to play in reducing this for providers, applicants and their advisers. As part of the International Education Strategy, UCAS is committed to streamlining the international admissions process and improving the quality of data and documentation collected.ii This will give providers greater confidence and considered speed in offer making, and support in the reduction of speculation and application fraud which will come with greater demand and competition. The use of innovative technology and Artificial Intelligence will play a key part of this investment. A challenge to address, but not an insurmountable one. Get this right for students and global demand will only continue beyond 2030.iii 

Also check out How can continued innovation in higher education help us meet national and international demand? By Dr Anthony Manning, Director and Dean of Global Lifelong Learning, University of Kent. 

Should the UK take on an additional 50,000 international undergraduate students a year?

In cold economic terms, the answer is also a clear ‘yes’. Average tuition fees of £22,000 per yeariv equates to £1bn in annual tuition fees. In addition, there is a benefit to local economies from accommodation, retail, leisure, and hospitality – with the total economic value being £41.9bn in 2021/22 according to a recent report by UUKi and HEPI. This funding supports UK HE and ensures that students of all domicile benefit from high quality teaching, services and choice – and the growth in demand from international students, and subsequent increased financial benefit, will support the increased demand from domestic students.  

Growth in international students is a polarising issue across the media. Perhaps a commitment from the sector to match the percentage growth in domestic disadvantaged students to that of international may change sentiment – as ultimately the income, and presence, of international students does support the experience of this group. This PR battle may be lost if international growth races ahead to the detriment of young people in the UK. As a sector we must take people on the journey on the social, cultural and economic benefits of internationalisation. 

However, we must not just focus on the economic arguments, as international students in UK HE offer many more benefits. Social capital, exposure to new cultures, diversity in thought and individuals, and the creation of global networks all offer significant benefits to our student population. There’s no better embodiment of today’s global world than life on a university or college campus.  

Today, international undergraduate students make up only 15% of the total undergraduate population, though this is not evenly spread and at some universities and on some courses, it will be considerably more.v Even if domestic volumes stayed the same on the Journey to a Million projection, only one fifth (21%) of the undergraduate population would be international. From any angle that seems like a reasonable and manageable share. This would not create noticeable changes in lecture rooms or on the high street. In comparison, international enrolment on Postgraduate Taught [PGT] programmes account for over 50% now.  

On the cautionary side, UK HE must of course address the needs of the UK population. With falling levels of productivity and increasing skills gaps the role of UK HE is vital to ensure young people and adults can upskill and reskill to meet the pace of global change.  

Overall, this debate may likely go against the adage of ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. It is for the sector to answer this question, not I. I hope the Journey to a Million essay series stimulate the debate that helps us collectively find the best outcome. One thing that is critical is that decisions should be made in the context of the institution, their local community, local economy, the diversity of their intake and overall student experience – as this decision will be unique to each provider.  

HESA (January 2023), Where do HE students come from?

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

iiHolon IQ (April 2023), US International Education in 2030. 6 Charts, Top 20 Source Countries and Preliminary Forecast.

iv British Council, Cost of studying in the UK. Accessed May 11th, 2023.

HESA (January 2023), Where do HE students come from?

Chris Kirk

Director of UCAS International, UCAS

Chris joined UCAS as the new Director of UCAS International in June 2022, to further enhance UCAS’ role in helping the world connect with UK higher education. He has responsibility for driving the evolution of our international undergraduate admissions services, as well as the growth and value in our recently launched Myriad by UCAS platform – a mobile-first tool to support international postgraduate students applying to study in the UK. Chris has worked in education and training for almost two decades in the UK and internationally.