What Our Data Told Us About The State of International Admissions in 2021

2021 was another year wherein COVID-19 cast a shadow over international admissions. We revisit the key trends from 2021, and ask what the future has in store for 2022

2021 was the second full year wherein international higher education was irrevocably shaped and changed by COVID-19. 

And like 2020, higher education professionals, leaders and policymakers were eagerly watching emering trends, in the hope of understanding their own international student enrolment plans could be affected as a result. 

As 2020 gave way to 2021, our analysis had offered some sobering insights for higher education institutions in the most popular international destination countries, such as the USA and UK. 

For example,  a survey of BridgeU international school students who matriculated in 2020 told us that, in those instances when COVID-19 had caused students to switch destination countries, the USA saw a 71% decrease in enrolments; in the UK, it was a 56% decrease. 

When we looked forward to 2021, a snapshot of the USA told us a similar story. As of January 2021, interest in the USA had decreased in every major geographic region of the world except for the Middle East. 

We’ve continued to analyse and revisit key international higher education trends throughout 2021. Twelve months later, let’s review what insights 2021 had to offer. 


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The United States of America 

In 2020, the US international admissions was arguably the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of the USA’s slow and mixed response to the virus, coupled with (then) President Trump’s more restrictive border policies, saw overall interest in the USA decrease. 

The inauguration of President Joe Biden, coupled with a more dedicated vaccine rollout across the USA in 2021, caused many to hope that 2021 would be the year international student interest in a US education would bounce back. 

So when we analysed BridgeU international students’ applications to the USA in March of this year, here’s what we found. 

Overall, international student applications to the USA decreased year on year

When we looked at actual applications in March 2021, our data told a similar story to three months previously. The USA saw a year on year decrease in applications from every region of the world, when compared to 2020. 

Specifically, Asia reported an overall reduction of nearly 13% in international school students applying to the USA, while the Americas reported the second biggest drop in applications at 10%. 

Europe was the only region of the world to buck this trend.

Average applications per student to the USA increased

While the overall number of applications to the USA decreased between 2020 and 2021, the average applications per student increased. For example, on average international school students in Asia submitted nine applications to a US higher education institution. 

The Americas came second with an average of eight applications per student.

Students’ interest in the USA  grew in South-East Asia, North Africa and the Middle East

The countries where the United States experienced the most growth in applications include India, South Korea, Kenya and Thailand. 

While our research showed fewer concentrations of growth in European and American countries, it’s still worth highlighting that the USA has become more popular year on year in countries including the Netherlands and Honduras. 

Our year on year comparison also revealed a number of specific cities and localities where the United States has enjoyed a growth in interest from BridgeU international students. 

Let’s return to three of our high growth countries - India, South Korea and Thailand. 

We found that across these three countries, the cities with the highest year on year growth included Seoul, Hyderabad and Bangkok. We also found that Cairo and Sharjah were two high growth cities in Egypt and UAE respectively. 

It’s also worth noting that, even in those countries where international students’ interest in a US higher education had decreased overall, certain cities in those countries experienced a growth in interest. 

For example, Shanghai & Salvador were two cities where interest in the USA increased. But when we looked at the destination preferences of our students in China and Brazil as a whole, we noted that interest in the USA had declined.

Watch: How Can Admissions Teams Ensure Success in 2022?

Individual US states experienced differing levels of application interest from international students

Having analysed those cities and regions of origin where international students’ interest grew year on year, we then examined which US states and census regions have been the main beneficiaries of this growth in interest. 

Taking into account those 48 countries where international students’ interest in the USA rose, we found that the most popular states in every census region saw increases in interest from these students. The most notable beneficiaries included: 

  • Across the states in the West, universities in California and Washington. 
  • In the South, institutions in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. 
  • Illinois and Michigan universities in the Mid-West. 
  • In the Northeastern United States, all the most popular destination states saw increases - namely New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Connecticut. 



The United Kingdom

Later in 2021, we conducted an analysis of how international school students’ interest in the UK had changed year on year.

Note: Our UK insights were informed by an analysis of international students’ application intent, rather than actual applications submitted. We measure application intent by looking at the universities and courses that students shortlisted in the BridgeU platform.

Our UK report revealed a number of trends that were similar to those we saw in the USA. But our UK analysis also told some interesting stories of its own.

International students’ interest in the UK broadly remained stable year on year

We analysed the proportion of students who expressed early interest in the UK when they first started their guidance journey and built their personal profile in the BridgeU platform. 

Between 2020 and 2021, the percentage of students who expressed an interest in the UK remained stable, with a very slight decrease from 42% to 40% year on year. 

Asia was the only region where interest in the UK declined

The United Kingdom saw a year on year increase in interest from students in every major region, except Asia. 

It’s notable that, in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, even Europe reported a year on year increase. 

Our findings contrasted with UCAS data from January 2021 that showed a 40% decrease in EU applications. We hypothesised that students who attend European international schools could be more resilient to the post-Brexit tuition fee increase.

In order to sense-check this significant year on year increase in interest amongst our European school students we checked a key conversion point a stage beyond shortlisting, namely UK university applications started within BridgeU. 

Here, too, we noted an increase of 7.4% in the number of UK university applications initiated through the BridgeU platform.

International students’ interest in the UK looks quite different on a national level. For example, while we saw an overall decline across Asia as a whole, countries like China, Taiwan and Vietnam have seen notable year on year increases.

Elsewhere, the highest concentrations of growth were in Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Middle East. UK universities can take heart from the sizable year on year growth in countries such as Malawi (504%), Venezuela (1490%) Romania (177%) and Palestine (587%). 

Interest from international students within local markets was more polarised

Much like the USA, our analysis of the UK in 2021, showed that there was a lot of variation between international students within a given region or locality. 

For example in China, the UK became more popular for students in Shanghai but notably less popular for students in Shenzhen. 

Likewise in the UAE, the UK became more popular for students in Dubai, but less popular for students in Abu Dhabi. 

Scotland saw the largest increase in interest from international students

Turning first to the four constituent countries of the UK, we see that all four countries experienced a year on year increase in interest from international students. Of the four, Scotland saw the most notable increase at 8%, with Northern Ireland coming second at 7.5%. 

Looking at the constituent regions of the UK, we saw the most sizable growth in London (11%) and the Northwest of England (11%). By contrast the Northeast and East of England experienced notable decreases in interest year on year, at 5% and 8% respectively.

3 international admissions trends to watch in 2022

So what can 2021 tell us about 2022? Are there any conclusions from the past 12 months that universities can draw on as they seek to further refine and redefine their international admissions operations in the coming year? 

This year, we’ve focused our analysis primarily on the more established destination countries. We’ll continue to report on what our data is telling us about international students’ higher education preferences during the course of 2022. 

But for now, here are our three key takeaway for international admissions teams as they make their 2022 plans. 

1) Interest in more established destinations has declined…but there are promising signs of growth

Many of the predictions that we saw in 2020 pointed to a sizable reduction in international students applying to the more traditional international destinations, including the USA and UK. 

Whilst there were overall decreases in international school students shortlisting and applying to these countries, it still remained the case that there were notable increases in interest in a US or UK education within specific localities and markets.  

This brings us to our second key takeaway for 2022. 

2) Focus on local, not global trends

In the past two years, we’ve both read and published a lot of commentary exploring international students’ migratory patterns and higher education preferences on a global scale. 

Let’s be clear. We’re certainly not saying these trends aren’t relevant, or interesting. But as 2022 begins, we’d encourage that you look more closely at local trends in specific markets. 

For example, while much has been written about the potential decline in popularity of the United States as a study destination, our analysis in 2021 suggested it’s potentially more useful for institutions in the USA to think about their appeal to international students on a more state-by-state basis. 

In fact, our work with international schools has taught us that the local identity and culture of a higher education institution is likely to be as, if not more, influential on a students’ decision making. 

3) Competition for international undergraduate talent will continue to be fierce

Our analysis of international students’ interest in the UK provides a useful snapshot of just how competitive international undergraduate admissions could prove to be in 2022. 

For example, we found that just over 49% of students using BridgeU shortlisted universities in two or more countries. If we break this percentage down further, 26% of students shortlisted two countries, 13% shortlisted three countries and nearly 6% shortlisted four countries 

This is coupled with the fact that a notable side-effect of COVID-19 was the intensification of international competition, with new countries emerging to challenge the more established higher education destinations. 

This is not surprising at a time when international students may, understandably, be more concerned about the quality of teaching they will receive in a world that has required faculties and campuses to offer more degree programmes remotely. 

We know that many universities will probably have a good working knowledge of their national competitors. But institutions must increasingly analyse and understand their international competitors if they are to meet their enrolment goals. 

If you’d like to know more about how your international student application trends have changed at your institution in the most recent academic cycle, get in touch with us below, and we’d be happy to give you a free snapshot of where international student interest in your institution is coming from.

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