International Students looking at a computer
The UK surges ahead ©

Photo Mimi Thian, Unsplash, issued under licence and adapted from the original

December 2019

The UK now surges ahead of a flat-lining US as the world’s most popular destination for overseas students. Michael Peak, Senior Adviser Education Research, British Council, makes the case for our Higher Education sector. 

UK universities now recruit more international students each year than any other country in the world.

Including visiting and exchange students, these numbers now stand at 286,235 (including visiting and exchange students) – more than a quarter of whom now come from China. 

Moreover, the latest data on visas issued for studying in the UK indicates that the UK offer is becoming more globally attractive, with an overall growth of 16.1%, and a rise of over 20% from China, and over 60% from India. These data are a good indicator for the latest intake of international students in the current academic year (2019/20), with numbers expected to continue to rise.

And this news comes at a time when we learn that international enrolments in HE are in decline in the US, the previous holder of the number one spot. New enrolments dropped 1% in 2018/19, continuing a trend since 2016, and now number 269,383, although overall student numbers in the US remain higher due to the greater average length of courses.

Visa stamp
Our visa offer makes us more attractive ©

Photo Pixabay, issued under licence and adapted from the original

Initial reaction from other countries suggests that announcements by the new UK Government of changes to relax visa policies towards overseas students is further increasing interest in the UK by making our offer more attractive (and these policy announcements came too late to impact the latest figures).

Counting students to the UK, and the students enrolling on British courses overseas, the UK teaches over one million international students each year, and engages with every country on earth. It is little surprise that around one in four world heads of state were educated by the UK, and that the country comes top of the international rankings for the perceived strengths of its universities and research (see Value of Trust).

One in four students and one in three researchers in UK HE are international (bringing a wealth of talent into its universities); over half of the research the UK produces is co-authored with international partners (good news given that such co-authored research is more widely cited); and, through its international collaborations, UK universities support communities in the UK and around the World. This means that the UK can help to address global challenges from food security to climate change to the repercussions of the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. 

The message that the UK must send to the world is one of a willing collaborative partner, eager to learn with and from international friends. A successful tertiary education sector benefits from and contributes to an outward facing UK. 

The UK’s universities are a huge international success story for the UK on the global stage. This is the product of a combination of the excellence of our institutions and hard work by policymakers to create the right conditions to allow them to meet growing global demand. Policymakers will have to continue to support the sector if its success is to carry on in an increasingly competitive field. If they do so they will build upon a vital foundation of the UK’s economy and global influence.

Michael Peak, Senior Adviser Education Research, British Council

See also