Global markets spotlight: Student recruitment data for UK universities

May 2, 2024

Jayde Robertson & Ridhima Chatterjee

The UK still stands as one of the top choices for higher education abroad (#2 to be exact). The reason? Legacy institutions, the promise of graduating from a top-ranked university, and the melting pot of cultures make the UK an ideal place for exposure to a (truly) international experience. But shifting policies, concerns around safety & better prospects in countries such as Canada, Australia, and the U.S., have all lessened the appeal of the UK as the international study destination of choice. 

To navigate this evolving landscape, we analyzed the latest Global Student Recruitment data. This blog explores the following: 

  1. What are the priority markets that UK universities should be investigating? 
  2. What’s news in the UK’s priority markets? 
  3. Which countries are the UK granting most study visas to?
  4. What are International Students’ top priorities and preferences? 

Dive in and discover actionable insights to help your university thrive in the dynamic world of international student recruitment.

What are the priority markets that UK universities should be investigating? 

According to UCAS College Board Data, the priority markets announced in the 2021 update to the International Education Strategy have seen varied results in demand for UK HE. 

  • India and Nigeria have seen strong growth in recent years, as has Saudi Arabia, which has seen an increase of 50% (+500) since 2016. 
  • Indonesia has seen an increase of 191% (+525) since 2011, although progress has since slowed. 
  • Vietnam has not had the same level of interest, with demand mostly declining in the last ten years, notwithstanding a 2020 uplift of 20% (+75). 
  • Nigeria features within the top ten markets for a five-year demand increase (+1.7k, +102%), as does Pakistan (+1.1k, +59%). 
  • Some new markets emerge when examining increases over the last two years, with Hong Kong (+1.3k, +23%) and Ireland (+1.2k, +29%) seeing notable increases since 2019.
  • The US has had an unexpected surge in demand just in the last year with the second-largest proportional one-year increase (+2.7k, +53%) after Nigeria.

This shows us that while traditional powerhouses like India remain important, UK universities should prioritize diversifying recruitment efforts by targeting high-growth markets like Indonesia, and the US, alongside emerging players such as Hong Kong and Ireland. 

What’s news in the UK’s priority markets? 

UK universities will lose traction this year in at least two of their most important source markets, India and Nigeria. Recent research from IDP notes a concerning 30% of students who initially intended to study in the UK for the 2024-2025 intake are now re-evaluating their plans. Modeling by PwC indicates that anywhere from 51% to 80% of UK universities could fall into deficit if international enrolments decline from 2024/25 onwards.

The data you need to consider: 

  • Why are students reconsidering the UK? Recent policy changes have impacted the UK’s appeal. IDP said 44% of prospective students said the changes will have a 'very high' or 'high' impact on their plans. 
  • Research indicates that nearly a third (28%) of Indian & Nigerian students are now reconsidering the UK and instead looking at the US for their study-abroad aspirations.
  • This translates to a potential loss of £2.1 billion in student-generated revenue. 

Read our blog Why reliance on the same international markets isn’t working for universities in 2024 to learn more about the reasons behind this sharp decline and what you can do to diversify enrolments. 

Which countries is the UK granting most study visas to? A look into emerging markets

In 2023, visas issued for main applicants grew by 2.3% compared to 2022, an increase of 85.9% from 2019.

What does this mean? The significantly slower growth rate indicates a leveling off in international recruitment.

  1. India: 133,237
  2. China: 108,978
  3. Nigeria: 51,071
  4. Pakistan: 33,150
  5. United States: 14,603
  6. Bangladesh: 10,717 
  7. Nepal: 7,848
  8. Saudi Arabia: 6,368
  9. Hong Kong: 6,336
  10. Sri Lanka: 6,277

At a combined 242,215 visas, Chinese and Indian nationals comprise almost half
(49.8%) of all sponsored study visa grants. As we spoke of the shifting interests of Indian and Nigerian nationals before, UK universities can now tap into ‘emerging markets’ such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka while keeping an eye fixed on priority markets for economic shifts such as the devaluation of the Nigerian Naira last year. 

What are international students' preferences and priorities in 2024? 

International students are speaking up, and universities are listening.  Here's a glimpse into their aspirations:

  • Healthcare: A significant 71% seek access to better healthcare, while nearly half see studying abroad as a path to financial success.
  • Sustainability as USP?: For postgraduate students, sustainability is a major concern (68%), influencing their academic choices. Additionally, 42% prefer full-time programs, highlighting a desire for immersive learning.
  • The rise of AI: Nearly 40% of postgrads believe integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) into their studies is essential. This trend is particularly strong in the Middle East, and Latin America, among millennials, and men.
  • Hybrid learning: Hybrid learning is increasingly desired, with almost half of postgrads rejecting online-only programs.
  • Business & STEM preference: Business and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) remain popular choices, with 38% of postgrads emphasizing the importance of AI in these fields.
Source: GMAC 2024 Market Insights Report 

Concluding thoughts 💭

The international student recruitment landscape is going through a shaken-not-stirred moment. Global market trends, student preferences, and policy changes are all important considerations for building effective, region-specific campaigns that ensure diverse student enrolments. 

Gentle reminder: Cultural nuances, communication preferences (including language barriers), and economic factors can significantly influence a student’s decision-making! The Pink Print© is a detailed marketing research and strategy document that can help you navigate these complexities. This comprehensive resource offers tailored strategies, research-backed insights, and a roadmap to reaching new markets. See what a difference it can make – click here to learn more!

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