Is the UK still the destination of choice for international students?


International student numbers are dropping. Has the UK lost its touch when it comes to recruiting overseas students?
aeroplane landing at sunset

How do international students decide where to study, and will they continue to land in the UK? Photograph: Alamy

The UK currently attracts one in nine students seeking to study abroad. But universities are part of a fiercely competitive marketplace, and other countries are fighting hard to entice academic talent wherever they can find it.

As an international student, is the UK still an appealing place to study?

International students are a key part of the UK’s understanding of the world and how the world now – and in the future, will understand the UK,” says professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council director of internationalhigher education. “A loss of international students should be seen as a ‘brain drain’, and that is something the UK cannot afford on any level.”

While St Andrews can still rely on the Kate and William factor – as well as excellent courses – to draw in Americans, and Nottingham university’s links with China makes it a favoured destination, there has been a steep decline in applicants from India and Pakistan to the UK. Trends suggested there would be an increase, but instead there was around a 25% drop in students from these countries coming here last year.

The drop in numbers of international students studying in the UK is a worry to universities.

“International recruitment figures in the UK over the last few years have not done justice either to the global success of the UK’s universities, or the sector’s ability to tap into this substantial growth market,” says Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK. “At the same time, competitor countries have seen rises in international student numbers.”

When aggressive statements on immigration are made by British politicians and a few days later hit newspapers in India, Pakistan or Malaysia, it’s hardly surprising that as a prospective student you may decide to spend three years and a shedload of your cash somewhere a bit friendlier.

Dandridge says: “The quality of our universities must be matched by the quality of welcome we provide to students.”

Fees are a big worry for many international students, says a British Council survey. High costs and poor exchange rates may be a reason why more international students are doing UK university courses outside the UK now than inside, studying either on satellite campuses or via distance learning – or a combination of the two.

If you’re a student deciding where to do your degree, you have more choice than ever on where to study. David Smith, from Simon-Kucher & Partners, thinks this could lead to UK universities setting different prices for different courses, to better reflect the value of the course you’re applying for.

Worries about getting a job after graduation are particularly hard for international students whose families have made enormous financial sacrifices so they can study overseas.

“A lot of Indian students get a loan through their parents, which they’ll have to pay back. Without being able to work here afterwards, that’s not feasible now,” says Vicki Smith, director of Study in the UK, which offers advice on UK higher education to students in countries around the world.

A visa to work beyond four months after graduating from a university in the UK now normally requires a job with a minimum salary of at least £20,300 a year – and it can be even higher for some sectors. A mechanical engineer must earn a minimum of £24,100, an electrical engineer £23,600 and a design engineer £24,800.

Given that the UK graduate job market is hardly at its healthiest – latest data from the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education survey shows that the median salary of employed graduates from full-time courses six months after graduation was £20,000 – this means that many overseas students will be heading home shortly after handing their graduation gown and mortarboard back to the hire shop.

And while PhD graduates are allowed stay on for a year to look for work or start a business through the Doctorate Extension Scheme, introduced in April 2013, their university must be willing to continue being their sponsor. This is different to USA, Canada, Australia and Germany who are extending their post-study work offer in recognition of the skills that international students can offer their job markets.

Despite all this, the UK is expected to retain its position as the second strongest market after the US, attracting an extra 126,000 international students, according to a study by the British Council’s education intelligence service.

But with China, for example, investing heavily in its own universities and colleges, there is likely to be a fall in the numbers of Chinese prepared to spend a king’s ransom to study abroad, and larger numbers wanting to apply to do their degree in one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

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