UK slipping behind Australia in international education

The United Kingdom is likely to lose its position as the second most popular destination globally for international students and be overtaken by Australia, as a result of UK government policy, according to research findings published on 19 July from the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London. It even suggests this may already have happened.

Currently the UK attracts the second-highest number of international students after the much larger United States.

The paper’s author, Professor Simon Marginson from the Centre for Global Higher Education, used standardised UNESCO data to investigate incoming tertiary students across the most popular international student destination countries between 2011 and 2016, and tracked trends in individual countries after 2016.

He said: “What we are seeing is a seismic shift in the global student market. UK higher education is still highly valued internationally, but the government has held down the growth of international student numbers for five years, by limiting new student numbers and post-study work visas. Meanwhile, competitor nations are strongly promoting their international education.”

Marginson found that there has been little growth in the number of international students entering the UK since 2012. The numbers of international students entering the UK rose by 2.6% from 2011-15. This compares with the US growth rate that was more than 10 times as high, at 27.9% for the same period, which the paper attributes to the Obama administration’s open-door policy.

Marginson said: “In 2016, Australia surpassed the UK in the number of students from outside Europe it attracted. Australian numbers are growing at 12-14% a year – while the UK is standing still. Unless UK policy changes tack, the nation will continue to lose global market share. When the data for 2018 come in, it is possible that Australia will have already passed the UK in total international student numbers (both Europe and rest of the world together).”

In 2015, the UK received 136,000 more students than Australia. But when full figures for 2018 are available they will show that if the UK is still ahead of Australia, the gap is only slight, the paper says, and in fact, Australia may have already passed the UK.

Marginson said the UK remains strong in Europe, but its position in Europe will take a hit after Brexit. “It looks certain Australia will be world number two by 2019, with the UK falling to number three.”

Pooja Kumari, research manager at Policy Connect, said: “As global student mobility continues to grow, the UK’s higher education export industry is stagnating. While the UK has for many decades been in clear second place next to the US, countries like Australia are putting policies into practice that are attracting a larger share of globally mobile students.

“In order to build a resilient economy and to develop our soft power diplomacy, it is clear the government needs to urgently develop joined-up policies to underpin and grow our gold-standard higher education sector globally.”

US growth slows under Trump

Growth in international students entering the United States has slowed down in the Donald Trump era, the paper says.

Institute of International Education data show that between 2015-16 and 2016-17 total international students in the US increased by 3.4%, compared to successive increases in the previous three years of 8.1%, 10% and 7.4%. Canada is likely to be a principal beneficiary of the slowdown in growth of international students entering the US.

Canada remains behind the UK but its international student intake is increasing at a faster rate. Canada had just one third of the UK’s ‘rest of world' (non-EU) international student enrolment in 2011 but had reached nearly half of the UK level in 2015, and the Canadian enrolment from the rest of the world increased by another 10.6% in 2016 while the UK’s enrolment was falling.

Canada has a target of 450,000 international students, nearly all of whom will come from the rest of the world (not the EU).

It, too, might eventually catch and pass the UK, the paper says.

The data reveal the extent of the UK’s dependence on students from the European Union. The UK is the most popular destination country for EU students. In 2015, almost a third of its international students were from the EU.

If Brexit shuts down free movement and European students have to pay full international fees in the year of study rather than UK fees supported by tuition loans, the number of EU students entering the UK is likely to decline sharply.

If the number of European students entering the UK drops, Marginson predicts that Germany, the Netherlands and France are the EU countries most likely to see increased international student numbers in the future.

Russia draws from Central Asia

Elsewhere, numbers entering France have fallen sharply since 2012. Russia has seen a marked growth in students entering from Central Asia.

Globally the number of international students increased from just under 4 million in 2011 to just over 4.85 million in 2016, according to UNESCO figures.

Marginson is co-chairing the Higher Education Commission’s current inquiry into higher education attracting international students to the UK. This data will underpin key recommendations in the report, launching this September, which is being taken to be examined at both the Conservative and Labour Party conferences.

The second co-chair, Lord Norton of Louth, is due to hold a parliamentary debate on the very subject, of which these findings are likely to be a cornerstone of the discussion, particularly as the UK’s 2020 higher education export target of £30 billion (US$39 billion) is currently estimated at just £19 billion (US$25 billion).