International UG applications break 100,000 barrier

Universities in the United Kingdom have seen a jump in undergraduate applications from European Union countries and a sharper spike in non-EU applications for places in 2018, bringing applications by international students to more than 100,000 for the first time, according to the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) for applications ahead of the January deadline for courses starting this autumn.

Overall applications were down by 1%, due to a 3% drop in applications from within the UK. But this was masked by a 3% rise in EU applications (excluding the UK) and an 11% rise in non-EU applications.

The number of EU applications was 43,510, up from 42,070 last year but down from a peak of 45,220 in 2016. Nevertheless, they have recovered to above the 2015 level that existed before the Brexit vote. Observers suggest the jump this year could be a last-minute rush before Britain is due to leave the EU in March 2019.

But that would not explain the hike in non-EU applications to 58,450, up from 52,630 in 2016. The rise breaks the trajectory over the past several years of a slowdown in growth to near zero. Non-EU applications barely increased from 2015 (52,020) to 2017 (52,630) but the hike this year is the highest since 2010.

Helen Thorne, director of external relations at UCAS, said there are probably a number of factors affecting the rising demand from both EU and non-EU international students, including the weaker pound, which is reducing the cost for some international students, and government confirmation that EU students who begin their courses this autumn will continue under the financial support arrangements for the rest of their course, even if their course lasts beyond the date the UK leaves the EU.

There were some interesting changes in demand from particular countries. The key rises were in applications from two of the top source countries, China, up by 21% to 11, 920, and India, up by 36% to 4,470. China is by far the leading source country, followed by Hong Kong (5,320, up 4%), France (4,590, up 2%) and India.

But the highest increase was in students from Mexico, up 52%, albeit to a modest 190 in total, perhaps reflecting a declining interest in studying in the United States, where President Donald Trump has been openly hostile to Mexicans.

Population factor

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said the small drop in applicant figures overall can be attributed largely to the fall in the number of 18-year-olds across the UK population. This group makes up half of all UK applicants to universities.

Commenting on the EU and international applications, he said: "The increase in international applications shows that the UK remains one of the most attractive destinations in the world for talented, international students.

“But it is worth remembering that UCAS undergraduate application figures provide only a partial picture of what is going on in relation to international students.

“Nearly a half of international (non-EU) students study at postgraduate level, so will not apply via the UCAS undergraduate route. Of those who study at undergraduate level, only around 60% are accepted via the UCAS route."

Jarvis said an area of concern is the continuing drop in mature applicants and it “must be addressed by government if we are going to meet future skills needs”.

Changes to the way degrees in nursing, midwifery and some other allied health professions in England are funded, are also having an impact on overall application numbers, particularly from older age groups.