Urgent action needed to ‘recover’ UK appeal to international students

The UK has lost market share in 17 key nations that were the bedrock of overseas student recruitment, universities have warned

A report has warned that the successful delivery of the new graduate visa route is vital to maintaining the global competitiveness of the UK higher education sector, months after universities cautioned that increasing enrolments in Australia could soon see the UK eclipsed.

The report published by Universities UK International (UUKi) on 6 September is the second in a series from the organisation that represents 140 higher education institutions. The first paper warned that, although the UK accounts for 8.2% of the global international student market, its share grew by just 0.9% between 2016 to 2017, lower than every one of its key competitors, including Russia. The UK lost market share in 17 of the 21 countries with the highest annual international student recruitment figures, like Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

The chief executive of UUKi warned urgent action was needed “to recover our position in a range of countries where the UK used to be a first or second-choice destination, but isn’t any more”.

Alongside urging the government to make a success of the new graduate route, the report makes a series of recommendations, including reducing financial barriers with more “innovative funding opportunities”, more overseas promotion of UK universities and more support for English language ability.

While the UK growth figures languished below 1%, Australia grew recruitment by 13.6% in the same timeframe and now accounts for 7.2% of the market. The USA continues to lead the globe with 18.6%, and managed 1.4% growth between 2016 and 2017: Germany, France and Canada posted growth figures of 5.9%, 5.3% and 10.8%, respectively, and all account for between four and five per cent of the global market. The report also highlighted countries like Russia, Japan, Malaysia, Ghana and Turkey as emerging regional competitors.

In the face of stiff competition, UUKi wants policymakers, politicians and vice-chancellors to secure the UK’s second-place position and redouble efforts to recruit at least 600,000 overseas students by 2030, the target outlined in the first International Education Strategy of 2019. The UK enrolled 538,615 international students in 2019/20, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).

The figures this year are expected to fall after the number of placed EU applicants dropped by 58%, from 27,750 to 11,700, according to Ucas figures released on 6 September. While more non-EU international students are bound for the UK than ever, growth represents only an 8% annual rise compared to last year, equivalent to around 3,000 extra students.


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UUKi wants the government and the business sector to promote the graduate route more to students and employers. It also seeks a new strategy for the employability of UK graduates from overseas and a pilot programme for a new “International Graduate Export Placement Scheme”.

The report wants more coordination between the branding and marketing campaigns of universities and the nations of the UK, and promotional delegations “that have media- and student-facing activities and the promotion of the Graduate route at their heart” led by Prof Sir Steve Smith, the International Education Champion.

Recent policy changes have made the UK a more attractive destination, after a long period where we lost ground to other countries
– Vivienne Stern, UUKi

A new national scholarship brand to promote and design new co-funded government-university scholarships and a review of visa costs are also urgently needed, the report recommends. UUKi also suggests that more money be allocated, via the British Council, to developing a “long-term strategic approach” to English language education overseas.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “The UK is extremely fortunate to be such a popular destination for international students. Recent policy changes have made the UK a more attractive destination, after a long period where we lost ground to other countries. But as this research shows, we need to work hard to recover our position in a range of countries where the UK used to be a first or second-choice destination, but isn’t any more.”

“This report makes some important recommendations on how the UK can broaden its appeal and build its reputation as the world-leading destination for international students,” said Prof Dame Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and UUKi policy lead. “Universities will continue to work closely with government to remove barriers for international students and identify ways of diversifying recruitment to meet the ambitions set out in the international education strategy,” she added.


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