Delving deeper into international student mobility

Friday 29 September 2023, International

by Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser at UCAS, and Ruth Neville, PhD student at Liverpool University.

Delving deeper into international student mobility

Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser at UCAS, and Ruth Neville, PhD student at Liverpool University.

At UCAS, our data is one of our richest assets – that’s why we were delighted to support Ruth Neville, PhD student at Liverpool University, in leveraging UCAS data to understand flows of internationally mobile students into the UK. The resulting insight contributes fresh evidence to the debate about what makes individuals travel across the world to study. We note parallels with UCAS’ own research, as we explore what influences the choices international students make? and also celebrate the bringing to life of these themes in the #WeAreInternational campaign, which UCAS is delighted to support. 

International student mobility is significant (and growing)

In 2022, 6.4 million students pursued HE abroad, almost double the amount in 2007; the UK is the second biggest destination with 10% global market share behind the US (15%). Last year, UCAS supported more than 150,000 international undergraduate applicants on their admissions journey, with an additional 390,000 pre-applicants making use of the student Hub to discover and explore their UK HE opportunities. On average, international students represent 12-14% of total UCAS acceptances in any one year – as of results day 2023, overseas acceptances topped 50,000 (a slight decline of 2.3% on 2022, largely driven by a fall in Chinese acceptances).  

Demand for international HE is expected to grow further in the coming years, with the UK being a key beneficiary. In fact, UCAS is projecting up to a 60% increase in international applicants by the end of the decade, signalling the ongoing attraction of UK HE. Within this, we see a 75.6% increase in HE applicants from outside the EU and a slowing decline in EU students across the decade. Supporting greater quality and diversity as this demand grows is central to UCAS’ vision of admissions in the future.

With Universities UK International and Higher Education Policy Institute reporting that the net economic contribution of international students to the UK’s economy is £37.4bn, international student mobility is big business. Equally, the societal benefits of growing the diversity of the student base are well understood. So, what do we find out about the drivers behind international student recruitment?

Economic development and net emigration are intrinsically linked 

Figure 1. Relationship between the number of accepted applications (log) from an origin country1 and development level (Human Development Index (HDI)) (2019) (a); Map of number of accepted applications (log) vs. development level (Human Development Index (HDI)) (2019).

There is growing recognition of the relationship between the rate of economic development of the origin countries of university and college students and the outward migration flows of those students. When using UCAS data to analyse the UK as a destination, we can see that there is a non-linear relationship between the level of origin country economic development and the rate of net student emigration. Whilst we see a gradual increase in outward flows as development increases, this begins to dip in middle ranges of development, before increasing steeply again for the most highly developed countries, and then dipping slightly for countries at the highest level of development. The result is a ‘S’ shaped curve, as illustrated in Figure 1.

These results indicate two points of saturation when considering flows of international students into the UK: one at the higher end of the medium-developed countries and another at the highest point of development. We know from previous literature that highly developed countries tend to attract students from other highly developed countries. Although this is evidenced for the UK, we do see the decline at the highest levels of development.

These findings suggest that, at some points of a countries’ economic development, they may be more likely to send students to destinations such as the UK for HE. However, this relationship is not straightforward and the rates of net emigration for students vary. This knowledge could prove invaluable as we think about future priority countries for the next iteration of the International Education Strategy (IES).

Employment opportunities can act as an important ‘pull’ factor

While the UK is clearly an attractive prospect for international applicants – UCAS research finds that 88% of international applicants continue to see the UK as a positive or very positive place to study – we can’t rest on our laurels. We find that higher levels of UK unemployment have led to reduced international student flows, indicating that students take the potential of future employment in the UK into consideration when choosing to study abroad.

These findings are in line with previous UCAS research which indicates that students are around five times more likely to rank landing a job in their destination country, relative to their country of origin, as their top priority when choosing where to study (5.5% vs 1.2%). Similarly, when asked whether they intend to remain in their country of study post-graduation, visa permitting, individuals are four times more likely to be planning to remain in their country of study than not (41% vs 10%).

From the perspective of ‘brand UK HE’, this is a promising finding given the recent introduction of the Graduate route, which provides an opportunity for international students who have been awarded their degree to stay in the UK and work, or look for work, at any skill level for two years. It suggests that this policy is playing its part in growing the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for international students.

India is a special case

We identify a unique set of motivating factors for India (an IES priority country). Applications from Indian students are on an upward trajectory, with demand set to reach around 40,000 in five years’ time. Students from India appear to not be so deterred by higher fees (the US welcomed a record number of Indian students last year) or distance but are equally not as positively affected by colonial relationships, language or diaspora in the UK. As India is one of the key origin countries of international students coming to the UK – and numbers are continuing to grow – it is important to understand the unique combination of factors which seem to influence Indian students’ choices. UCAS will seek to explore this further as part of its insight report series.

Growing sustainably and increasing diversity

The globalisation of the HE market can only be a good thing for students: it offers social capital, cultural pluralism, diversity in thought, and the benefits of worldwide networks. This research supports a sustainable approach – it is in building our understanding of the role of economic development, in addition to the relevant importance of individual market ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, that the UK can stand out in a globally competitive market.

Beauty is in diversity, and no one nation (nor student) is the same – we must acknowledge and embrace this, as we seek to widen the UK’s appeal to all four corners of the globe. This is no better showcased than by the #WeAreInternational campaign. Such real-life stories act as unrivalled sources of inspiration for aspiring international students across the world.

1 The country from which an individual originally comes

The PhD paper authored by Ruth Neville is still under development pending finalisation and publication later this year – as such, this insight is provisional in nature.