UK international student numbers to grow 50% in five years

The figure comes in a new UCAS report looking at what influences an international student to choose their destination

With worldwide travel firmly back on the agenda, a new report from UCAS and College Board outlines just what sways an international student to opt for their chosen destination.

And, in a domestic sector increasingly reliant on the funding provided by overseas students, the findings detailed in Where Next? should make valuable reading for UK universities.

Concerns that Covid would quench long-term demand for overseas learning appear to have been unfounded. Indeed, the desire to study in a new country seems to be firmly on the rise, with the report citing research from HolonIQ suggesting that nine million internationally mobile students is a “plausible” possibility by the end of the decade (the current figure is a little over five and a half million).

“International students are showing extraordinary resilience,” said Clare Marchant, UCAS chief executive. “The universal appeal of living and studying in another country continues.”

In the UK, UCAS forecasts that the volume of international undergraduate applicants will increase by 46% to 208,500 by 2026, drawn by factors including a strong academic reputation, the English language, a sense of safety, and the NHS.

That will be welcome news to a market that, it was reported last year, had slipped from first to third in terms of search demand share for international students.


Read more: International students worth £28.8 billion to the UK economy, report estimates


As the UCAS/College Board survey of 1,300 students attests, the reasons for choosing a higher education destination extend well beyond campus. It was found, for example, that students are five times more likely to say securing a job in their destination country, rather than their home nation, is their top priority.

“Our findings focus on international students’ mindsets and what they want from their higher education experience,” added Marchant.

“To continue to inspire and support international students to cross borders, the global higher education community should personalise applicants’ experiences, using information that’s relevant and useful for specific countries to share the outstanding opportunities on offer.”

The report makes a number of recommendations on how best to boost international student numbers in the UK, including:

  • Grow nation-level intelligence as to the different values, motivations and interests held within key markets
  • Align individual university and college and national campaigns – including Study UK, Scotland is Now and Study in Wales – to diversify the UK’s appeal and extend the range of countries from which students are recruited
  • Prioritise peer-to-peer engagement, allowing prospective students to connect to individuals from their home nation, as well as those studying their chosen subject and university or college
  • Co-promote international study as a transformative life experience, with a multitude of components beyond the classroom including work, cultural integration, and global network building
  • Monitor and communicate significant changes in international strategies worldwide, recognising their interrelationships
  • Provide personalised information and advice to international applicants through the UCAS Hub, tailoring content to each nation, and Myriad by UCAS, a dedicated platform for international postgraduate students coming to the UK, as well as their would-be providers
  • Build in greater flexibility within application services, both UCAS and Myriad by UCAS, to enable applicants to apply at the right point in time for the individual
  • Capture a broader range of equalities data and contextual information about the background of international students to better target financial and pastoral support
  • Diversify both the subject range and type of provision targeted at each international student to attract more individuals from a broader range of domiciles to study overseas

International students are showing extraordinary resilience – Clare Marchant, UCAS

“As we are on the precipice of the world reopening, these results reaffirm the desire of so many students to study in another country,” said Linda Liu, College Board’s vice-president of international.

“Studying abroad is a big decision, and we continue to see international students planning early, being thoughtful about their research, and fiercely seeking tangible outcomes from their experience.

“We are pleased to partner with UCAS on this research, which not only includes learnings from this new survey, but also combines insights from previous research to uncover evolutions and differences in how globally mobile students are making their choices.”

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