International students: Experts say it’s no time to relax

It was celebration time among British international higher education leaders this week as new data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showed that 605,130 international students were enrolled at United Kingdom higher education providers in 2020-21 – meeting the target set in the country’s international education strategy well ahead of schedule.

Another report released a few days later from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which looked at the 2021 recruitment cycle, showed a 12% increase in applications to study in the UK from people outside the European Union in the first half of this academic year. However, this positive trend is tempered by a severe drop in applications from students in the EU post-Brexit.

The goal of raising the total number of international students to 600,000 was announced in March 2019 – with the new strategy aiming to nearly double the value of education from its £20 billion (US$27 billion) value in 2016 and boosting the number of international students by more than a third from the 2016 level of 442,000, as University World News reported.

At the time, experts such as Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to the universities minister, suggested it couldn’t be achieved without a more welcoming immigration policy and pointed out that the 4% average growth target was modest compared with rivals like Australia, which had been enjoying an annual growth rate of over 17% in its international student population.

However, the latest HESA data, released on 25 January, showed that recent visa and post-study work reforms seem to be working, with the UK hitting the 600,000 international student target almost a decade ahead of schedule during the 2020-21 academic year. This is despite the twin turmoil of the Brexit withdrawal agreement and the start of the COVID-19 global health emergency.

Brexit helped short-term numbers boost

Brexit may have caused a short-term boost to numbers of students coming from countries remaining in the European Union enrolled at UK universities in 2020-21, as Lucy Van Essen-Fishman, lead policy and research analyst at HESA, pointed out in a paper looking at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020-21 student data.

She wrote: “Despite fears about the potential effect of the pandemic on international student numbers, the 2020-21 student data still shows an overall increase in international first year students.

“First-year first degree student numbers from the EU are up by 8%, only slightly below the rate of increase for first-year students overall; EU-domiciled postgraduate student enrolments are also up, but the rate of increase is smaller.”

But, as she pointed out, the 2020-21 academic year was the last year in which EU students were guaranteed home fee status, “which may have encouraged EU applicants not to defer their studies despite the uncertain pandemic situation”.

EU acceptances halved in 2021

The UCAS data, released on 27 January, painted a far gloomier picture on current and future trends for UK student recruitment from EU countries.

This showed that at the end of the 2021 UCAS recruitment cycle the number of EU applicants fell by 40% and the number of EU students accepted on to courses to study in the UK was half of the number for the year before.

Fortunately, the number of 18 year-olds domiciled in the UK is rising and helping to offset the fall in EU student demand, with the UCAS End of Cycle 2021 report showing home demand for university places growing despite the upheaval and horror stories caused by the global pandemic. The new UCAS data reveals 7% more UK 18 year-olds winning higher education places in 2021 – up 27,235 on the 257,895 placed in 2020.

More UK applications to higher education

A total of 606,645 people of all ages across the UK applied to higher education in 2021, up by 5% on 2020, with 492,005 accepted, which represents a rise of 1%.

Clare Marchant, chief executive at UCAS, said: “The 2021 cycle was the first admissions cycle that took place end to end during a global pandemic, and the tremendous hard work and resilience of students has been justly rewarded with the increase in placed applicants as well as those getting their first choice.

“Demand for UK higher education remained strong in 2021 and we also saw a surge in interest in apprenticeship opportunities.”

Applications from outside the EU increase

The UCAS data showed that despite the decline in applications from students in EU countries and the expected impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international student mobility, the total number of international students applying to study at UK universities by the end of 2021 was only down by 5%, to 142,925.

This included 111,255 applicants from outside the EU, which was up 12%, with 54,030 accepted, which represented an increase of 2%.

In contrast, 31,670 people from within the EU applied, which was down by 40% on the year before, with the number accepted at 16,025, representing a drop of 50%.

In a blog, David Kernohan, associate editor of the Wonkhe higher education think tank, described the HESA data as “a great curtain raiser” for the UCAS End of Cycle report and wondered out loud whether part of the increase in students could be caused by increases in the numbers “taking an extra term to complete their course” because of the pandemic.

He also pointed out that the HESA data covers undergraduate and postgraduate students and looked at the first part of the pandemic, while the UCAS figures focused on undergraduate applicants and acceptances and covered the second part of the pandemic.

“International students saw related but specific pressures during the main year of the pandemic, but there was a startling rise in the number of international masters degrees awarded in 2020-21 – 57% of all qualifications awarded to international students were taught masters,” he said.

Testament to perseverance

Dr Stephanie Harris, acting head of policy and global engagement at Universities UK International (UUKi), told University World News: “Reaching the recruitment target set out in its International Education Strategy well ahead of schedule is testament to the perseverance shown by the students themselves, and by our members, those across the wider sector, and government, who have worked collaboratively to ensure students from around the world continue to be welcomed in the UK.

“We can be particularly proud of achieving this target during such a challenging recruitment year due to COVID-19 restrictions.”

But the “significant fall in EU applicants” was disappointing and a spokesperson for UUKi said: “We will continue to urge the government to explore ways to encourage students from the EU to apply to UK universities, including through Study UK campaigns and new scholarship offerings.”

Dr Vicky Lewis, founder and director of her own international strategy for higher education consultancy, told University World News: “Even if UK universities recoup some EU enrolments, it is likely that the profile of EU students at UK universities will shift, with greater dominance of wealthier students from wealthier parts of Europe, and potentially a rebalancing from undergraduate study towards postgraduate.”

A quick recovery expected for the US

Michael Peak, head of education research at the British Council, warned that despite reports of fewer students enrolling in colleges and universities in countries like the United States, which University World News reported recently, he predicted: “The USA will recover and will recover quickly.”

He said the latest declining numbers from the US may be due in part to policy in recent years “which hasn’t always been open and welcoming to international students”.

He told University World News: “It could also be a reflection that the US data only includes students physically in the country, whereas the UK data includes those temporarily accessing their course remotely, perhaps due to travel uncertainties linked to the pandemic.

“So, it is crucial that the UK continues to work hard to promote an attractive offer to international students and that the UK government continues to work collaboratively with higher education providers to champion the message that the UK is open and welcoming, and an attractive study destination for talents from around the world.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.