The United Kingdom is the global leader in high-quality undergraduate education for international students, with international undergraduate students rating the UK number one for student satisfaction, ahead of the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and New Zealand, the research found.
The UK also "excels in teaching and learning”, according to research released by the UK Higher Education International Unit at Universities UK.
However, it also notes that the US and Canada are enjoying faster growth in market share of international undergraduate students than the UK.
The research, International Undergraduate Students: The UK’s competitive advantage, which examines the changes that have occurred between 2008 and 2014, shows that international undergraduate student satisfaction with UK higher education is very high at 91% and satisfaction has increased in every area of the learning experience.
It found that 85% of international undergraduates who study in the UK would recommend the UK experience to others; the highest recommendation rate of all of the major English-speaking destinations.
UK universities have seen improvements in international student satisfaction across 75 of 84 measures. The report says that the UK has the highest satisfaction ratings among its competitors for all the dimensions of the student experience: overall satisfaction, learning, living, support and arrival experience.
“Notably it excels against its competitors in teaching and learning, with the highest rating for 15 of 23 measures of the teaching and learning experience, and has increased satisfaction since 2007 in every single area of the learning experience,” the report says.
It also has higher satisfaction with the cost of living than its main rivals.
Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said the results show that international students “can expect a truly world leading standard of teaching and learning” when they come to the UK.
“International students are very welcome in the UK and play an important role in making our education system one of the best in the world. Our higher education reforms are putting students at the heart of the system, making sure that all students are getting a high-quality education wherever they are from," he said.
UK Higher Education International Unit Director Vivienne Stern said the report’s findings endorse the work that universities in the UK are doing to continuously improve the student experience. But there was no room for complacency because other countries are increasing their efforts to attract international students and are enjoying faster growth.
This is despite the fact that the number of non-EU international undergraduate students in the UK has increased by 46% since 2007, according to the report.
“The UK must jointly capitalise on its obvious strengths in order to drive sustained growth for this critical component of the UK's higher education system and its broader economy," Stern said.
The report's author Will Archer, CEO of i-graduate, added: "A key factor driving continued growth is the demonstrated ability of UK universities to deliver on the promise of a world-class undergraduate experience. To have achieved increases across all measures of the learning experience, while sustaining such high ratings for student services across a period of growth, deserves recognition."
Professor Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said: "Reputation matters, but what matters most is how our international students rate us. This survey gives a definitive answer to that question.
“The rich diversity of excellence among UK universities means that students can find the right course for them and, most importantly, have a world-leading experience during their time here."
However, despite the positive findings for the UK, the report noted that the UK's market share of international graduates has stagnated over the period 2008-14. It also warned that more international students are weighing up several destinations when choosing where to study and there is “no doubt” that the sector is being “negatively impacted by current visa policies”.
“Rising competition from the ‘sleeping giant’ of the international sector, the US, is proving significant, as is the offer from Canadian universities,” the report says. “The significant fall experienced in recent years in Australian international undergraduate enrolments illustrates the potential fragility of this market.”
According to the report, in 2007-14, due to increased growth in international undergraduate student enrolments in North America, all other competitors except the UK went backwards in real terms. The US share rose by 52%, Canada’s by 20.2%, and the UK’s by 0.5%. But Germany, New Zealand and Australia experienced falls in their share of 18-22%.
The number of international undergraduate students in the UK as a proportion of total international student numbers is lower than most of its rivals, the report says, with 50% of students studying at undergraduate level. Only the US is broadly similar (51%).
One of the areas showing lower levels of satisfaction with studying in the UK are financial indicators including “earning money” which is down seven percentage points to 68%.
However, in three of the four countries in the UK (excluding Scotland) undergraduates complete a degree in three years rather than four as in the US, Canada and Australia, which means students pay tuition fees for fewer years and can access the jobs market more quickly.
The findings are based on international student experience data derived from i-graduate's International Student Barometer, supported by statistics on international student recruitment and enrolment in the UK, as well as high-level analysis of other major destinations, government policies on recruitment, support and post-study employment.
A better understanding of the student landscape
The report was drawn up with the intention of contributing a better understanding of the international student landscape and making recommendations that would help UK policymakers and universities drive up growth of international student recruitment.
To that end, it noted that education agents featured in the decision-making of at least 26% of international undegraduates in the UK, a figure lower than among the UK’s English-speaking rivals.
Given that students in the UK typically report satisfaction with agents’ services of 90%+, the UK should do more to engage with this group positively, the report recommends.
“The UK’s attractiveness to education agents as a study destination has trended downwards since 2010, counter to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand,” the report says.
Of the 130,000 international undergraduate students enrolled in the UK in 2013-14, nearly three out of four were from Asia, 11% from Africa, 9% from the Middle East, 9% from North America and 1% from Latin America, the report says.
The report draws on feedback from 365,754 international students studying outside their home country.
It is part of a series commissioned by the UK Higher Education International Unit to systematically examine the UK’s market position with respect to international student recruitment and the international student experience.
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