UCAS has forecasted that the number of international undergraduate applicants to UK institutions will increase by 46% to 208,500 by 2026.
In the Where Next? What influences the choices international students make? report, co-authored with College Board, UCAS found that the UK’s universities and colleges are held in “the highest regard” by prospective students. As the world emerges from the pandemic there is “renewed interest in living and learning” in the country, it added.
The report shows that “international students apply for a focused group of subjects, are highly independent with their research, and around half follow in their parents’ footsteps by studying abroad”.
“Our findings from this joint research with College Board focus on international students’ mindsets and what they want from their higher education experience,” Clare Marchant, UCAS chief executive, said in a statement.
For example, the research noted that while 80% of Nigerian respondents said they were most interested in gaining skills to support them in their career, the most important factor for 75% of respondents in India were that UK HE options are of “better quality”.
“The global higher education community should personalise applicants’ experiences”
“To continue to inspire and support international students to cross borders, the global higher education community should personalise applicants’ experiences, using information that’s relevant and useful for specific countries to share the outstanding opportunities on offer,” Marchant added.
For applicants to US (57%), Singapore (54%), and the UK (54%) prospects after graduation are most important, while in Italy (75%) and the Netherlands (72%) experiencing life in that country comes as top priority.
When researching study options, prospective students want to hear from students, with 40% suggesting open days and 39% indicating interaction with current students were important. Both methods are increasingly used by students, the companies noted.
Some 47% of respondents say that a close family member previously studied internationally, suggesting that parental influence is key.
The survey also found that more than one in 10 international students are considering HE abroad before their 11th birthday.
The results “reaffirm the desire of so many students to study in another country”, Linda Liu, College Board’s vice president of international, highlighted.
“Studying abroad is a big decision, and we continue to see international students planning early, being thoughtful about their research, and fiercely seeking tangible outcomes from their experience,” she said.
College Board reported a record number of international students sitting for their Advanced Placement exams in 2021, exceeding pre-pandemic participation by 4% to reach 84,000. Additionally, many students wanting to send their SAT scores to universities outside of their home country is evidence of a desire to study abroad, Liu indicated.
Writing in The PIE, Liu and Des Cutchey, managing director at UCAS International, estimated that during the pandemic, more than 155,000 international students chose the UK as their destination of choice and began their studies.
“The global HE marketplace appears to have weathered the Covid storm,” they wrote. “However, growth has not been equal – around two in every nine new international undergraduates entering the UK are from China.”
UCAS is calling for the next iteration of the UK’s International Education Strategy to “endorse a nation-specific and action-led approach to promoting UK HE”, Cutchey and Liu added.
In 2021, more than half of international students accepted through UCAS to study in the UK came from seven countries, with two in every nine coming from China. Typically, around 75-80% of EU domiciled students and around two thirds of non-EU students apply via UCAS.
“It is by growing nation-level intelligence as to the different values, motivations and interests held within key markets that the UK will be able to diversify its international recruitment, thereby cementing its position within an increasingly competitive global marketplace,” they added.
Projecting that the 2026 cycle could see one million applicants – around 27% more than in 2021 – UCAS says the volume of international applicants through UCAS could increase by 46% to 208,500 by 2026.
“It’s time to stop thinking of ‘international students’ as one homogenous group”
Seven in 10 internationally mobile students now consider applying to several different destination countries, the survey – completed by 1,300 students – also found.
Rising demand presents significant opportunities for the UK to grow and diversify classrooms, however there is also “growing competition” from markets such as US, China, Canada, Australia and United Arab Emirates, Cutchey and Liu noted.
“It’s time to stop thinking of ‘international students’ as one homogenous group and start wakening up to the need to meet their unique needs. If diversification is the long-term goal, personalisation must surely be the star player,” they concluded.