The past two years have undeniably presented significant barriers to international student mobility. Closed borders, digital learning, social unrest, virtual outreach, visa uncertainties and geopolitics to name but a few – but, far from hitting the panic alarm, millions of students continue to follow their dream of studying overseas.
Within UCAS’ new report, published today in collaboration with the US-based non-profit organization College Board which delivers programs like the SAT and Advanced Placement, we estimate that during the pandemic, over 155,000 international students chose the UK as their destination of choice and begun their studies. The global HE marketplace appears to have weathered the COVID storm.
However, growth has not been equal – around two in every nine new international undergraduates entering the UK are from China. Consequently, nine universities and colleges recruit more than 10% of their intake from China. 55% of all international undergraduate students enter a higher tariff university, with Chinese and Singaporean applicants a staggering five times more likely to have five choices at higher tariff providers than home applicants.
There are similar trends afoot when we look at subject choice – 25% of all international student acceptances are to business and management courses.
So why is this? And what can the HE sector do about it? The survey, upon which much of today’s report is based, gives us answers. Aspirations are shaped in early years with more than 1 in 10 international students considering HE abroad before their eleventh birthday. Parental influence is also key - around half (47%) say that a close family member previously studied internationally. Even with just these factors in mind, it is hardly surprising that recruitment is particularly concentrated.
Hope is on the horizon, not least as this research tells us 70% of internationally mobile students now consider applying to several different destination countries. They also see themselves as fiercely independent. More than half say that it was their own research that informed their choice of country of study, with a mere 1% referencing teachers and 2% naming agents. That’s why communicating directly with potential students is key and UCAS is making big strides in this space. For undergraduates, we provide personalised information and advice to international applicants through the UCAS Hub, tailoring content to each nation, whilst the recently launched Myriad by UCAS offers multilingual and interactive guides for postgraduate students based on key touchpoints in their research journey. The College Board also offers Big Future, a university and career planning platform that allows students to explore different university options and receive in-depth, free guidance on applying to universities and colleges, particularly in the US.
Our research also shows that motivation to study differs by domicile. 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 International Education Strategy (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 key markets that the UK will be able to diversify its international recruitment, thereby cementing its position within an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
UCAS projects the 2026 cycle could see one million applicants – around 27% more than in 2021, and double those seen in 2006. This would result in an increase in the volume of international applicants by 46% to 208,500 by 2026. This rising demand from international markets presents significant opportunities to grow and diversify classrooms in UK universities and colleges. Nevertheless, growing competition from other markets, namely the US (20% market share), China (9%), Canada (9%), and Australia (8%), as well as emerging destinations such as the United Arab Emirates, means that understanding what students are looking to gain through a degree overseas is crucial.
The global HE marketplace has something for everyone: prospects after graduation appear to be more important for those wanting to study in the US (57%), Singapore (54%) and the UK (54%); whereas experiencing life in that country is more important to those considering Italy (75%) and the Netherlands (72%). When asked about their aspirations in pursuing a degree outside of their home country, students consistently rank those factors related to knowledge and skills most highly.
Emerging from the pandemic, the UK HE sector has a relatively clean bill of health, but how do we keep it that way, and in the face of increasing competition from other destinations? It’s time to stop thinking of ‘international students’ as one homogenous group and start wakening up to the need to meet their unique needs. If diversification is the long-term goal, personalisation must surely be the star player.