By Tamsin Thomas

14 November 2013 - 15:20

The transatlantic flow of students is stronger than ever. Photo of woman in British Library: ©VisitBritain / Eric Nathan, used with permission.
The transatlantic flow of students is stronger than ever. ©

VisitBritain / Eric Nathan, used with permission.

In the latest Open Doors report about US student mobility, the UK is again the number one destination for US students. The British Council’s Tamsin Thomas reports on this year’s top-line findings.

It’s International Education Week in the US and one of the headline events is the release of the Open Doors research, an annual report produced by the Institute of International Education (IIE), which looks at inward and outward student mobility from the USA.

Student mobility between the US and the UK

The great news is that the transatlantic flow of students is stronger than ever. More Americans are choosing the UK for study abroad and exchange (34,660), as well as almost 15,000 for a full degree. There are also almost 10,000 Brits choosing to study in the US, a market that has seen particular growth with increased tuition fees in the UK.

More American students are studying overseas as part of their US education, globally 10,000 more students went abroad for a semester, or a year, or a summer etc. than last year, an increase of 3.4%. With a 4.5% increase in the number travelling to the UK, the UK is outperforming the global average (see IIE's infographic for a summary of the findings).

The UK is the number one destination for Americans seeking to study overseas. It has had the top spot in the Open Doors report for over a decade. Throw in the full-degree data (15,000) and the UK is by far the number one choice.

This really is good news, considering that, over the last decade, the UK has been gradually losing market share despite seeing increases in student numbers. The global financial crisis has had an impact on full-degree numbers as well. This year, UK universities have regained some of that lost ground, going from 12.1% of the market to 12.2%, a modest increment but a move in the right direction nonetheless.

The British Council’s own research shows that US students' biggest motivation for leaving home is a desire to travel. America’s appetite for Harry Potter, One Direction and the Royal Family puts the UK in good stead. Its reputation for high-quality education, fantastic student support and a large array of study abroad options also help. It is therefore not surprising to see that short-term study abroad (as opposed to full-degree) and tourism data follow similar trends.

Italy, the UK's strongest competitor for students from the US, lost some ground this year, its market share having shrunk by 2.4% and leaving the UK safe – for now - in that top spot. The concerted efforts of UK universities, high-profile British presences at study-abroad conferences such as NAFSA and the Forum on Education Abroad, as well as the UK's portal for international students Education UK and government investment in the GREAT campaign are clearly achieving something.

More global and detailed data are needed

The question is: what next? The Open Doors data is the best data available for looking at study abroad, but it only paints a picture for the USA. There is a shortage of data for UK universities trying to strategically develop their study-abroad programme, particularly when trying to look globally.

There are substantial discrepancies in data reported by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the Open Doors research. A significant contributor to that are the many Americans studying at one of the American study-abroad centres located in the UK. As these students may never set foot on a British campus, they fall outside the scope of the HESA data.

Even looking at what does take place on UK campuses, it is still confusing. Some students directly enrol at a UK university, some enrol with a third-party provider operating under contract with a UK university, some study abroad through exchange agreements and remain enrolled with their home university. Many students self-fund their study abroad; those on exchanges don’t worry about UK fees; some just pay their third-party provider. The variety of study destinations, funding models, and programme types and the lack of consistent data makes analysis difficult and it’s hard for institutions to know how to develop their study-abroad offer and make it meet market and educational needs.

There are other shortages of data, particularly on the value of study abroad and how we communicate that to students. While study abroad offices consistently report difficulties in convincing students to study for a semester abroad, many placement offices are struggling to source enough overseas work placements to meet demand.

There is a chronic need for more data looking not just at how we can get more students to the UK, but also how we can support the thousands of UK students who are interested in pursuing part of their education overseas. This is why it’s great to see a new task force looking specifically at the need for a national strategy on study abroad and as an important component of this, more data.

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