By Michael Peak, British Council

10 July 2014 - 15:27

'Many are familiar with the story of how more Indian and Chinese students came to the UK as their countries’ economies grew.' Still from the British Council's animated infographic on student mobility
'Many are familiar with the story of how more Indian and Chinese students came to the UK as their countries’ economies grew.' ©

British Council.

September is when the UK will be welcoming new and returning students from all over the world, while sending out a few of its own. The British Council's Michael Peak runs us through the trends in recent years, as UCAS releases figures on undergraduate enrolment in UK universities today.

People have been drawn to study abroad for a very long time

In the 12th century, when Emo of Friesland showed up in Oxford as the university's first international student, his reasons to study abroad are likely to have been similar to those attracting today's students. Emo came to study in what is the UK today to learn from the best, experience a new culture, build his networks, and develop himself and his discipline before returning to work in his homeland. Even back in 1190, Emo’s fellow students would have learnt from the new perspectives and ideas he brought -- and the UK and global community have benefited from international students ever since.

In the past decade, international study has changed

The world is changing. We don't need to go as far back as Emo’s time at Oxford to notice this: in 1996, when students about to now begin their undergraduate course were being born, things were very different. Diana was still officially married to Prince Charles, the first Pokémon game was released in Japan, and Dolly the Sheep was being cloned by scientists in Edinburgh. Although President Clinton’s cat, Socks, hosted his own webpage, many people still preferred faxes to emails.

The number of students crossing an international border to study has increased by over 150 per cent in the last 18 years, and the proportion of those coming to the UK has almost kept pace with this global growth. International student mobility is changing fast.

A new interactive British Council tool, which is based on data from Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), UNESCO and other sources, shows how the UK’s profile as a study provider and host of foreign students is evolving.

It's not just China that's sending more students abroad

Today, most international students in the UK come from China. But back in 1996, Chinese students were merely supporting cast, in a show where Greek and Malaysian students took centre stage. China lagged at number 17 in the list of largest sending countries to the UK, just ahead of India.

Many are familiar with the story of how more Indian and Chinese students came to the UK as their countries' economies grew and their higher education policies and international outlooks developed.

But the tool also reveals some interesting sub-plots. The decline in Malaysian student numbers around the time of the south-east Asia financial crisis; the emergence of Saudi Arabia from 2007 onwards following the introduction of their large-scale scholarship programme; and the decline of Greece as a sending country after higher education reform at home.

International study brings benefits beyond money

International students are vital for the UK. They contribute over £250,000 each day to the UK economy. The total value of UK education exports is nearly double this amount. Not only do international students add to the diversity of UK campuses and bring new ideas and approaches to their studies, but they also help sustain the economic viability of many courses, particularly full-time Masters.

Last year the UK's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills identified 15 benefits of student mobility (beyond financial income) to individual students, to the UK and to their home country. Living and learning in another country isn’t a value in itself. But it does help ambitious students become more employable in that they can develop language skills, become more culturally aware, and broaden personal and professional networks.

There are more than 4.3 million international students at universities and further education colleges around the world. All of them are influenced by a combination of factors pushing them to seek opportunities beyond their home countries, and factors pulling them to choose a specific study destination.

When Emo came to Oxford in 1190, he was influenced by these push-and-pull factors too. He was just the first in a long line of bright young foreign brains -- 1.4 million in the past ten years -- who have graduated from UK universities and enriched UK society.

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