Indian student numbers in the UK set to catch up with Chinese

India is expected to catch up with China as a main source of international students recruited to British universities within a few years, following a memorandum of understanding struck by the United Kingdom and India to recognise each other’s higher education qualifications.

Universities in the UK expect a surge in applications from Indian students, particularly for masters programmes, following the mutual recognition of qualifications agreement signed on 21 July 2022.

In 2020-21 the UK attracted 84,555 Indian students, with 73% coming for masters courses mostly of one year’s duration.

The total number is up sharply on the 52,545 Indian students studying in the UK in 2019-20 and shows the gap narrowing between India and China as the two leading source countries for international students at British universities.

China still sends the most foreign students to the UK, but the rate of growth is slowing: there were 139,130 in 2019-20, and 143,820 last year.

Picture is more nuanced

However, numbers only tell half the story as the picture is more nuanced than simply UK universities replacing their previous reliance on Chinese with Indian students in terms of lucrative international tuition fees paid by overseas students.

Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of the global consultancy Education Insight, told University World News: “India is not simply replacing China and shouldn’t be seen as a substitute country by higher education institutions.

“While China and India are the two largest sources of international students globally, their motivations, study and career ambitions are very different.

“The students coming to the UK from the two countries are often studying at different levels and also tend to be concentrated in different subject areas.

“Around 45% of Chinese students in the UK are on undergraduate courses compared to 25% of Indian students. At the postgraduate taught level the picture is very different, with three quarters of Indian students coming to the UK for full-time masters courses compared to 52% of Chinese students.”

So, the Chinese study stay in the UK is longer as they are more likely to be on full-time undergraduate degrees, which usually last three years, in contrast to the concentration of Indian students on one-year full-time masters courses.

This means UK universities need to work harder recruiting to masters courses every year or the programmes are at risk of having too few students.

Ilieva also told University World News that recruiting students from India has a higher ‘cost of acquisition’ than their Chinese counterparts. “In comparison, the conversion rates of application to enrolment are lower for Indian students than those for Chinese.”

One major advantage Indian students have is better English-language skills and the motivation of many is to stay in the UK and find work after they graduate.

Post-study work visa boosted numbers

This was given a major boost when the UK government indicated in 2019 that it was going to reintroduce the post-study work visa route for international students graduating from 1 July 2021.

The graduate visa route gives international graduates the right to stay in the UK for two years to find suitable work, and for three years in the case of PhD graduates.

Numbers of students from India and several other countries applying to study at British universities took off from that point and in 2021 – nearly a decade early – the UK met its target of recruiting 600,000 international students by 2030, as University World News has reported.

The agreement

The memorandum of understanding between India and the UK is part of the UK-India Enhanced Trade Partnership agreed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.

It covers A-levels and their equivalents, and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, which should now be recognised in India.

A statement from the UK Department for International Trade (DIT) said the agreement “will allow Indian students who graduate from British universities to apply for postgraduate qualifications, or embark on government careers that require university qualifications, wh¬en they return home”.

It is also expected to boost the potential for UK nationals to travel to India to study, allowing them to broaden their academic and educational horizons, “as well as opening the door for institutions to create courses that can be delivered in both countries”, the DIT statement said.

Timing of agreement is ‘spot on’ for TNE

Vincenzo Raimo, a former pro-vice chancellor for global engagement at the University of Reading in the UK and now a senior adviser to the Oxford International Education Group, said the new agreement should help the development of both traditional and new forms of transnational education (TNE), by “making it easier to transfer credit from India to the UK and vice versa for the award of qualifications”.

He told University World News: “India seems to be at the top of everyone’s list for student recruitment, research collaborations and TNE developments, so the timing of this announcement is spot on.

“I’m sure it is very welcome by UK higher education institutions as well as by Indian entrepreneurs looking to invest in the fast-growing education business through TNE partnerships with UK universities.

“I also hope that it will help with mobility from the UK to India,” Raimo said.

“India could provide good options for UK students to study in English, but in a very different environment. The start-up and tech sectors are booming in India and there could be some very interesting opportunities for students to undertake work experience placements alongside university studies.”

India is already proving a popular destination for British students to gain study abroad experience since the Turing Scheme – the international mobility programme for studying, working and living abroad – replaced UK funding for the new round of the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme, according to the DIT statement.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK International, described the new deal as “a landmark, historic agreement which has been many years in the making”.

She told University World News: “Qualifications students receive will be recognised on both sides, making it easier for students to progress in education and move into jobs.”

The recognition of UK masters degrees “is a particularly important development” and should mean that Indian graduates from British universities “will receive formal recognition of their outstanding achievements and full access to jobs in the public sector in India”.

Barbara Wickham, India director of the British Council, said that the “mutual recognition of academic qualifications is a significant moment of celebration in the India-UK education relationship and will benefit thousands of young people and talented students in both countries”.

“The agreement will support even greater collaboration between our higher education sectors, nurture globally ready graduates through an increasingly internationalised education, and further enable joint education, research and innovation initiatives to explore solutions for shared global challenges,” she said.

Reaction in India is positive

The reaction in India is just as positive, with Commerce Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam welcoming the reciprocal arrangements, particularly recognition of Indian senior secondary school pre-university certificates as suitable for entry into UK higher education institutions.

Apart from encouraging student mobility, the mutual recognition of qualifications will promote excellence in higher education through increased cooperation, and academic and research exchanges, Subrahmanyam told the Indian media.

The agreement does not cover professional degrees. But the two countries also agreed a memorandum of understanding on recognition of maritime education qualifications and a framework agreement on healthcare workforce.

Ilieva said the healthcare agreement could prove very important for the UK’s National Health Service, which has experienced a staffing crisis since COVID-19, with tens of thousands of positions unfilled and a huge backlog in patients requiring treatment.

“Such agreements in the Asia-Pacific region have proved most difficult to regulate and the healthcare agreement between India and the UK could prove to be very significant.”

It is understood that the framework agreement on healthcare workforce includes cooperation on nursing and allied health professions, training of healthcare professionals and measures to bridge the skills gap, and that the agreement will facilitate the streamlined recruitment and training of nurses and allied health professionals from India by the UK.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.