How Has International Students’ Interest in the UK Changed Post-Brexit?

Our latest report reveals that international students’ interest in the UK has remained stable despite Brexit and COVID-19

Nearly five years after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom has finally left the European Union. Like many other sectors of the wider UK economy, it’s arguable that international higher education stands at a crossroads.

On the one hand, the UK higher education sector is free to follow the lead of the UK government, with its focus on ‘Global Britain’. 

Specifically, the UK government’s International Education Strategy aims to prioritise four ‘high-value’ regions where the UK will seek to increase its international student recruitment: China and Hong Kong, the Middle East & North Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

But while these new markets undoubtedly present exciting growth opportunities for higher education institutions throughout the UK, it’s impossible to ignore the seismic impact that leaving the EU is having, and will continue to have, on European student recruitment to the UK.

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In February of this year, the UK Department of Education commissioned a report that predicted that Brexit may result in UK universities losing up to 62.5 million in tuition fee income.

This same analysis hypothesised that any increased tuition fee revenue would not compensate for the lost revenue associated with more students coming in.

According to the most recent data from UCAS, as of January 2021, EU applications to UK universities had fallen 40% year on year, from over 43,000 in 2020 to just over 26,000 in 2021.  By contrast, the number of applications from non-EU countries rose by 17%.

Such a sudden shift in international student application patterns is indicative of the challenges that now face UK universities.

Specifically, UK higher education institutions now have two very distinct internationalisation challenges. On the one hand, they must consider how to expand their international recruitment strategy into new global markets. 

On the other hand, they face the challenge of repositioning themselves to potential EU undergraduates who may be put off by the loss of their home fee status. But our analysis of international students’ destination preferences tells a slightly more nuanced story. We examined how BridgeU international students’ interest in the UK as a study destination changed between the 2020 and 2021 application cycles.

What we discovered both complements, and diverges from, existing application trends reported by other UK higher education institutions, commentators and policymakers.

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.

We also examined the number of UK universities shortlisted per student. In every region this number increased between 2020 and 2021. The most notable increases came from students in international schools across Asia, Oceania and Africa.

Asia was the only region where interest in the UK declined

The only region where the UK was less popular with students was Asia (and even this decline was marginal). 

Perhaps more notably, the UK experienced an increase of 11% in interest from European students.

Our findings contrasted with UCAS data from January 2021 that showed a 40% decrease in EU applications. We hypothesise 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 is more polarised

If our national data illustrates why UK universities should think globally but act locally with their recruitment efforts, then trends across major global cities only reinforce the importance of such an approach.

 

For example in China, the UK has become 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.

The highest concentration of cities reporting increased interest were in Europe and Africa. UK international offices should look to these localities as potential growth markets in future recruitment cycles.

 

 

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.

Interest in Scottish universities has grown in every global region

Post-Brexit, EU students must now pay full international fees at Scottish universities, having previously been offered the same free tuition as their native Scottish counterparts.

We were curious to see how this affected international students’ interest in Scotland as a distinct constituent region of the UK. 

The good news is that Scottish universities have cause for optimism, with Scotland seeing a year on year increase in interest from every region of the world, with students at BridgeU international schools in Africa reporting the greatest growth (43%), followed by the Middle East (20%).

We note that, despite the UK’s exit from the EU, students at our European schools still reported a small but noticeable increase of 7%.

Biology & Economics were the UK degree courses that saw the sharpest increase

Between 2020 and 2021, Biology and Economics were the degree courses that saw the biggest growth in popularity with BridgeU international students.

We note that some traditionally popular subjects such as Medicine declined in popularity between 2020 and 2021. 

The subject area that experienced the steadiest growth were business-related subjects such as Business Studies, Finance and Accounting and Management Studies. 

UK universities face the greatest competition from institutions in the Netherlands and Canada

 

While institutions in both Scotland and the wider UK have reasons for optimism, it’s also important to note that global competition for international undergraduate talent is becoming increasingly fierce.

For example, we found that just over 49% of students 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.

Combine this with the fact that students considering the UK shortlisted five universities on average and you can see how much competition UK institutions are facing.

Below are case studies from three UK universities - London Metropolitan, The University of Edinburgh and The University of East Anglia. 

Specifically, BridgeU students who favoured London Metropolitan were most likely to also have shortlisted The University of Toronto, The University of British Columbia and McGill University in Canada.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the most popular universities were University of Amsterdam, the University of Groningen and Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

Turning to Scotland, we found that the University of Edinburgh is competing with some highly selective universities worldwide, including New York University (with an acceptance rate of 12.8% as of April 2021) and University of California, Berkeley (an acceptance rate of 18.3% as of 2021).

Like London Metropolitan, the University of East Anglia predominantly faced competition from institutions in Canada and the Netherlands.

If you’d like to read our full report on how international students' interest in the UK has changed between 2020 and 2021, download our full report below. 

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