Why it’s time for everyone to ‘think international’ 

Tuesday 30 May 2023, International

by Des Cutchey, International Development Lead, and Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser

Why it’s time for everyone to ‘think international’ 

With the 2023 update to UK Government’s International Education Strategy (IES) and UCAS projecting that international undergraduate applicants will see a 60% increase by 2030, it is a timely opportunity to take stock. In this blog, UCAS reflects on how far we’ve come over the past four years, and why it’s never been more critical for the sector, including us at UCAS, to ‘think international.’
Des Cutchey, International Development Lead, and Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser

Last Friday saw the 2023 update to UK Government’s International Education Strategy (IES) – a plan set in motion back in 2019 to support the global activities of our education sector. With the third tranche of UCAS’ Journey to a Million essay collection also released this month, which includes the projection that international undergraduate applicants will see a 60% increase by 2030, it is a timely opportunity to take stock.

Looking back to look forward

Much has happened since 2019, not least the small matter of a global pandemic. But, far from creating a more isolated world, COVID has been the catalyst for a still greater appetite for global connectedness. This sense of unity was reflected in the 2021 update, which saw UCAS – alongside UKCISA, the Office for Students, Universities UK International and the CBI – commit to working together with Government to enhance the international student experience, from the point of application, all the way through to post-graduation employment. This collaborative spirit has only been expedited in years since, with UCAS working closely with UKVI operations colleagues to better guide and support applicants earlier in the process about what to expect throughout the admissions journey. And it hasn’t just been limited to student-facing activity, with UCAS more recently working with the British Council to furnish the new agent training portal, as part of the next phase of the Agent Quality Framework, with content for advisers of international applicants.

The May 2022 Update saw ‘significant achievements’ in both implementation and delivery against the objectives at the tail-end of the pandemic. The May 2023 update is more indicative of how we are now bedding in to ‘the new normal’ – and the demand from international students seeking to enter the world-class UK higher education (HE) system has not waivered.

This is apparent through UCAS’ data. In the last admissions cycle, UCAS supported almost 150,000 international applicants on their admissions journey, with an additional 150,000 pre-applicants making use of the student Hub resources to discover and decide on UK HE opportunities. On average, international students represent 12-14% of total acceptances in any one year and in the current 2023 cycle, overseas applicants are tracking +3.1% year on year. Myriad by UCAS, the dedicated discovery platform for international postgraduate students, launched in spring 2022. It is now used in over 200 countries and territories, and has already been downloaded by over 90,000 prospective international applicants. Supporting greater quality and diversity as this demand grows is central to UCAS’ vision of admissions in the future. The international student journey is no longer on the sidelines, but a headline act.

Beauty in diversity and nuance

So who are the hundreds of thousands of individuals who choose to make the UK, not just their choice of educator, but also their temporary home?

In May 2022, and building on a growing bank of international research, UCAS published Where next? What influences the choices international students make?, exploring the influences and influencers behind the choices international students make when considering HE overseas. This report put numbers to differing motivations by nation: Nigerian students are most interested in gaining skills to support them in their career (chosen by 80% of Nigerian respondents); meanwhile, for Indian students, the most important factor is that HE options are of ‘better quality’ (75% of respondents from India).

Behaviours, pathways, expectations, and experiences of international applicants differ, not only from domestic students, but from each other. That’s why, in line with our report’s recommendation, UCAS believes that the IES, building on the identification of priority markets, should endorse a nation-specific and action-led approach to promoting UK HE. For our part, UCAS is expanding its market-level intelligence, with our first release this summer set to explore the mindset of Chinese students who choose to study in the UK.

Understanding the nuances of international applicants will help support diversification for UK HE – not just in terms of markets, but also where untapped opportunities exist across subject areas, UK geographies and higher education provider types.

Opportunities await, but beware the (many forms of) competition

UCAS and other commentators expect the number of internationally mobile students to continue to grow. The OECD states that, in the year 2000, there were 1.6m internationally mobile students, rising to 5.6m in 2020 – and some forecasts suggest this could be as high as 8m in 20301. This rising demand for undergraduate study from international students is one of two major drivers (the other being growing demand from domestic 18-year-olds) of UCAS’ Journey to a Million projection that demand will increase by 30% to up to one million annual HE applicants by the end of the decade. Such growth would see annual demand from international undergraduate students to increase by 60% to reach 240,000 by 2030.

However, this growth is far from guaranteed. Competition for international students continues to intensify, not only among destination countries, but previously source countries looking to retain and attract international talent themselves. Indeed, our May 2022 research found that 70% of those applying or planning to apply to the UK also consider other destinations. In addition, geopolitics remain a constant threat – with diversification of recruitment markets a major, essential mitigation. That’s why, we have also modelled the potential for the UK to lose market share, bottoming out at 8%, and a big drop-off in demand from a major international market, as part of our Journey to a Million data essay.

Equally, whilst the upward trajectory for international student recruitment is, for many, a cause of celebration, for others, this represents a growing concern in what will be an increasingly competitive and dynamic marketplace. A razor-sharp focus on ensuring a positive experience for both international students and their domestic classmates is fundamental to maintaining the UK’s competitive position.

Accelerating our international ambition and services

As the UK’s shared and centralised admissions service, at a national level, UCAS is a key delivery partner of the IES. In our corporate strategy, Discover your Future, we set out our ambition to play our part in maintaining the competitive advantage of UK HE by providing an accessible, streamlined and equitable route to our world-class universities and colleges for applicants. Equally, our accelerated focus on providing data, tools, and services to support our university and college customers to combat pain-points in the face of growing demand, whilst maximising opportunities for quality and diversity in their student bodies, seeks to display, front and centre, the merits of a shared national admissions service.

UCAS continues to work with government and sector colleagues to ensure international applicants and their advisers are educated, informed, and excited about the UK as a primary study destination of choice. We are re-energised on our own journey to turn rhetoric into deliverables. To ensure we are all pulling in the same direction, on the back of fresh commitments by the UCAS Board of Trustees to internationalisation, UCAS is launching an International Admissions Review in summer 2023 to consult with the sector on how UCAS can enhance, de-risk, augment, personalise and streamline the admissions journey for all parties, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels alike.

The power lies with the student voice

Although this 2023 update celebrates our successes, there are constant and stark reminders that there is no room for complacency. With Australia’s numbers making a rapid recovery, the Canadian government announcing an 18-month work permit extension for international students, and non-traditional overseas study destinations like Japan setting out on their own ambitious pathways, the UK needs to mobilise and leverage all its internal resources. And at its core is the experience students have before, during, and after their UK study abroad experience. UKCISA has been calling for this through their #weareinternational Student Charter.

The old trope ‘bad word of mouth spreads twice as fast as good’ only becomes more accurate and relevant as we get our global (and digital) connectedness back, and the continued applicant demand challenges international offices all over the UK. It’s why we encourage all customers and stakeholders to continue to ‘think international’ in all aspects of the student journey, even before we have historically thought that the journey has begun. And after all, international students will, many after very long flights and thousands of miles from their loved ones, ultimately vote with their feet.