Europe gaining on UK for study abroad students

The United Kingdom is slowly losing its competitive edge in attracting international students and it is not just native English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia that are winning a bigger share of the market.

Universities in European countries led by Germany and the Netherlands have become more appealing as they expand the number of undergraduate and masters degrees taught wholly in English, coupled with lower or no tuition fees and good research opportunities.

That’s the conclusion of Studyportals, the online service helping students from all over the world search for the most suitable English-language undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Carmen Neghina, head of intelligence at Studyportals, told delegates at last week’s International Higher Education Forum 2018 organised by Universities UK International that interest for European Union and UK student recruitment post-Brexit showed some worrying trends for British universities.

Most of the 29 million prospective students annually who use the company’s portals to plan ahead where to study look at the choices online up to two years ahead of enrolment. So many current users are investigating options post-Brexit.

“We know more students than ever are considering studying abroad. Therefore the absolute numbers of students considering the UK is not necessarily declining, but it is showing a smaller rate of increase in comparison to the growth in interest in European countries like Germany or the Netherlands,” said Neghina.

She was speaking at a session titled ‘Data-based Predictions: EU student recruitment to post-Brexit Britain’ at the conference held at Nottingham Trent University.

Neghina told University World News: “Absolute interest in studying in the UK based on visitors and page views to our portals has not declined; it's actually grown slowly. However, it is growing much slower than interest for other EU and EEA [European Economic Area] countries. In other words, the UK is slowly lagging behind.”

Her colleague Laurens Vehmeijer, analytics consultant with Studyportals, told University World News: “Naturally the UK provides the largest number of English-language courses in Europe – approximately 65% of provision at all levels of study. But there is more supply than demand for its courses since British universities cater to both domestic and international students."

Vehmeijer said: "Demand for UK courses, according to our data on usage of our portals for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, is less than 30% of the courses available in Great Britain.”

Competition from Germany and the Netherlands

He said the main competition was coming from Germany and the Netherlands in Europe.

"Germany has approximately 3% of the programmes but 17% of the demand. The Netherlands has around 5% of the programmes but 10% of the demand.”

“UK universities are competing a lot with each other for the same students. There is less competition between Dutch and German universities because they have fewer English-language programmes.”

"That’s not such a problem if you are just looking at students who have decided they just want to study in the UK, but if you also want to draw students who are currently looking at studying in Norway, for instance, then it is a lot harder.”

Neghina said: “If we look at the UK's global ratio of student interest on our online portals, demand from the EU is down by 20%, and 32% from outside of Europe. Other study destinations, including Europe, Canada and Australia are continuing to attract more interest to the detriment of British universities."

Declining interest in UK branch campuses

Another worrying trend reported to the Universities UK International conference is the decline in interest among European students in EU branch campuses of UK universities after the Brexit vote.

Last year a survey by what was then Hobsons Solutions, now QS Enrolment Solutions, showed 78% of EU students surveyed were interested in the idea, with most favouring studying at a British university branch campus in another EU country than their own so they still got the full study abroad experience.

This year, the figure dropped to 62%.

Paris remains the preferred city for a UK university branch campus in the EU with Amsterdam overtaking Berlin as the second most popular choice of venue.

The sample surveyed 3,400 EU students interested in studying at a British university.

Paul Raybould, director of marketing and market intelligence at QS Enrolment Solutions, said: "Our findings show that interest remains among EU students for branch campuses of British universities in the EU.

“While the interest in branch campuses has dropped slightly a year on, the high number of students that would still consider this as an option shows the strength of the reputation of British universities.

“There is huge potential to evaluate and further develop the market for transnational education. The strategies that universities take to attract international students to the UK, or to new branch campuses overseas, should take this interest into account.”