By Michael Peak, British Council

24 February 2015 - 10:33

'The UK actually attracts more new international students each year than any other host country.' Image ©

British Council

Most recent data shows that UK higher education attracted record numbers of international students in 2013/14, but there's no room for complacency, argues the British Council's Michael Peak.

‘Obscene’, ‘outrageous’, ‘sickening’ were just some of the terms used to describe the £5.1 billion being paid for Premier League TV rights for three seasons. International higher education students bring twice that amount each year to the UK.

Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) last month, and available to UK institutions via the British Council showed that in 2013/14, international students in UK institutions reached record levels: UK higher education attracts more new international students each year than any other country; 106 nations increased the number of students coming to the UK; new enrolments grew by five percent compared to 2012/13; and the UK now hosts international students equivalent in number to four times the revellers at Glastonbury Festival.

All good news, right?

Well, following the declines of recent years, this latest trend is certainly welcome. But rather than celebrate wildly, it is important to consider where the growth has come from and recognise the global context.

Where has growth come from?

The top ten sending countries from outside the EU remain unchanged from 2012/13 to 2013/14, although growth from Canada and Singapore pushed Pakistan down to tenth place. China continues to be the largest sending country, and experienced above-average growth along with the US (in second place). India (third largest sending country to the UK) declined further to its lowest level since 2005/06.

But considering countries with above-average growth in both total numbers and new entrants reveals some rather distinct groups (with some countries sitting in more than one group):

  • Countries considered to be hosts of transnational education (TNE): UAE (seven percent growth overall), Malaysia (nine percent), Hong Kong (13 percent), Singapore (12 percent), Bangladesh (15 percent);
  • Countries which could be described as ‘fragile states’: Iraq (28 percent), Libya (12 percent), Egypt (ten percent);
  • Countries which support many students with government scholarships (depending on level of study): Mexico (seven percent), Kuwait (16 percent), Oman (33 percent), Brazil (90 percent), Indonesia (28 percent), (and Iraq and Libya);
  • Countries sending a large proportion of visiting and exchange students: Canada (three percent) (and Brazil)

Putting UK numbers into context

The UK actually attracts more new international students each year than any other host country (including visiting and exchange students, the UK was host to 272,835 new students in 2013/14; the US, in comparison, welcomed 270,128 new students), but this reflects the high turnover of international students, and the fact that so many new students need to be recruited each year for total numbers to even remain stable.

Despite the evident attraction of the UK as a study destination, when we consider growth rates of total numbers, the UK would appear to be losing global market share. Whereas total numbers to the UK grew by around three percent, total numbers to the US increased by eight percent, Australia also increased by eight percent (from December 2013 to 2014), and Canada reported an 11 percent increase in student visas in 2014.

In addition to this, it's not simply the ‘traditional’ destinations that are attracting international students – more players are entering the stage, and several countries which until recently may have been viewed as ‘sources’ of international students are now setting ambitious recruitment targets: China: 500,000 students by 2020; Singapore: 150,000 international students by 2015 (although this is unlikely to be met); Malaysia: 200,000 international students by 2020 and South Korea with 200,000 by 2020.

So, how do we approach the future?

More than one in every four non-EU students in UK higher education is from China, and nearly half of all non-EU students are from East Asia. Indeed, Asia is where all major future demographic growth will take place. But despite being high, interest from the region in full-degree mobility to the UK would appear to be on the wane.

International student mobility is changing. Students have more choice over quality study destinations, and there is often much more flexibility to how they can approach and undertake their course.

And although around two per cent of enrolments will continue to cross an international border to take their entire degree, an increasing number of students are expecting to include an international element to their course through exchange, study abroad or TNE.

Collectively, in order to remain engaged and relevant on the global stage, we must continue to do three things. First, we must continue to support UK outward mobility to enrich the experiences of our home students and bolster links with partner countries and institutions. Then, we must continue to develop mutually beneficial TNE partnerships which can be crucial in supporting the continued global success of UK higher education, and mobility to the UK. Finally, we must continue to support the development and rebuilding of higher education systems in fragile states, both learning from and giving back to colleagues and institutions in these countries.

Michael Peak is speaking at the International Student Recruitment Conference on Wednesday, 25 February 2015.

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