Can UK universities still rely on international students?

Last week, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) issued new figures on undergraduate enrolment in UK universities for the 2014 to 2015 academic year. While this isn’t a comprehensive metric on the number of students who’ll be starting degree courses come September, it offers some valuable insights into the volume and breakdown of applicants our higher education system attracts today.

According to UCAS, the number of prospective students from outside of the UK saw some positive progress in 2014. Applicants from other EU countries increased by a modest 5%, hitting a three-year high of 45,380, while those from further afield were up 6% to 69,060.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, these figures are far from high enough to fully compensate for the dramatic decline in international enrolments that has impacted UK universities since around 2010.

Back in April, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published a report that turned the spotlight on this alarming trend. It found that in England, the number of full-time undergraduate students from EU countries – who have to pay the same tuition fees as Britons – fell by almost a quarter in the 2012 to 2013 academic year.

Meanwhile, entrants from some non-EU countries posted equally significant declines – according to the HEFCE, the number of Indian and Pakistani postgraduate students in the UK has halved since 2010. This is particularly troubling because courses like full-time Masters degrees are effectively kept economically viable by the UK’s international student population.

In fact, international students of all stripes are enormously important to the country’s economy. The UK’s universities are world-renowned, so they attract more applicants from abroad than those of almost any other nation – according to figures from the Department for Education, the country still accounted for 13% of all international enrolments in 2011. Only the US recorded a higher number, attracting 16.5% of all applicants.

As for how much this actually injects into the UK economy, Universities UK claims the figure comes to around £4.4 billion annually on fees and accommodation, then another £4.9 billion in off-campus expenditure. The Department for Education, meanwhile, estimates that the country’s educational exports as a whole are worth somewhere in the area of £17.5 billion per year.

Back in May, Rebecca Hughes of the British Council spoke out about just how much the UK has to lose if non-resident applicant numbers continue to decline. “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,” she told the Guardian. “A loss of international students should be seen as a brain drain and that is something the UK cannot afford on any level.”

Can the UK reverse the trend?

A number of hypotheses have been put forward in a bid to explain the downward trend. The HEFCE, for example, has attributed the decline in numbers of applicants from EU countries to fee increases. More recently, the UK’s student visa framework has come under fire in immigration clampdowns. Following a spate of incidents in which universities’ statuses as sponsors were revoked over allegations of abuse, shadow immigration minister David Hanson warned that “genuine students who can add to our economy are being turned away while bogus students prosper”.

These are both significant issues for institutions that are attempting to attract more international enrolments in an increasingly competitive market. The UK’s higher education system enjoys an enviable reputation on the global stage, but this isn’t enough in itself to guarantee a solid influx of students from abroad.

Returning international enrolment figures to double-digit growth will require input from multiple stakeholders. As noted by Universities UK in a statement issued in response to an October 2013 British Council report, the government needs to ensure that student visa rules “are properly understood internationally” – something all the more relevant after recent controversies over cheating on tests.

For universities themselves, the pressure is on to improve recruitment, branding and marketing activities in priority regions. The web might prove a critically important factor in future campaigns to this end, with increasing numbers of prospective students in target markets like China active on social media platforms and other online channels.

By improving engagement with potential applicants, UK universities will ensure that they continue to be seen as attractive destinations for international students. In turn, the country will continue to reap the benefits of this valuable demographic – academically, culturally and economically.

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