Why UK higher education is attractive to international students

Vivienne Stern

Vivienne Stern

Universities UK International

This blog was originally published on the FCO blog.

International students play a fundamental role in the character of higher education in the UK. With 436,585 international students studying in UK universities in 2014-15, the UK is the second most popular destination in the world for international students. They contribute to a rich learning environment, and universities take a strong international student experience very seriously. This pays off, as international students themselves enjoy the opportunity to learn with and from people with a wide variety of perspectives.

It is excellent to see that outstanding satisfaction rates from international students acknowledge the universities’ efforts. At all levels of study and in all aspects (arrival, living, support and learning), international students’ satisfaction rates are extremely high: 89% for postgraduate taught students, 90% for postgraduate research students and 91% for undergraduate students.

Even more heart-warming for me was the realisation that international students also actively recommend UK higher education more than other English-speaking destinations – Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Their responses to our research using i-graduate's International Student Barometer (ISB) clearly indicated the top decision-making factors are institutional reputation, the specific course of study and the quality of research.

World-leading higher education institutions in the UK, but also outside

Taking stock of this, UK universities have been investing in the last few years to expand their activities internationally, especially by providing access to higher education to those international students who could not afford an overseas education.

I am proud to see, as a result of these development decisions, that our UK higher education has become world leader in transnational education (TNE) – when students study for UK higher education qualifications outside the UK.

While there are about 250 international branch campuses around the world, the UK international branch campuses represent only 4-6% of the UK TNE provision. Most of our TNE is the result of building capacity in host countries through partnerships between UK and host country institutions.

A successful example is the LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, which sought out Goldsmiths University of London as a partner university with validation powers that had the same way to approach the arts.

Those international partnerships are more needed than ever, as the demand for higher education far outstrips supply in many fast developing countries. We can see today that TNE makes an important contribution to higher education worldwide, in a context of growing GDPs and middle classes.

It is really impressive to see that there are now more students on UK programmes outside the UK than in the UK – in 2014-15 there were around 663,915 UK TNE students, an increase of 13.4% from 2012-13!

Another fantastic achievement is that there are only 15 countries in the world where the UK is not delivering some sort of higher education. And the top five countries where UK TNE is delivered have remained constant since 2011; Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Oman prove the important demand and appeal in South East Asia for a UK higher education.

I believe this trend will continue, as four in five UK higher education institutions plan to expand their TNE activities over the next three years. UK universities clearly recognise the potential of TNE as a factor of external expansion but also growth in the areas of curriculum development, material delivery and partnership activity.

International higher education on the road to equal partnerships

It is particularly relevant to note that TNE is being increasingly delivered through local delivery partnerships, in which the relationship between the UK and host country institutions is very close to equal, recognising each other’s strengths.

For example, Liverpool University’s partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong – XJTLU was designed to bring together the best aspects of UK and Chinese education in an entirely new, joint, university.

I could not stress enough how crucial for our growing country-to-country relationship TNE is in China. I recently attended the UK China People to People Dialogue, and there was a clear recognition by Ministers on both sides of the value of the deep partnerships which have been developed by UK and Chinese universities to deliver high quality teaching.

Our team


Measuring transnational education: changes to the TNE data landscape

10 May 2021
Eduardo Ramos, Head of TNE and Griff Ryan, Transnational Education Projects Officer share insights on the new data on UUKi's Scale of TNE interactive webpage.

You can’t create virtual exchange overnight: what we have learnt from moving international experiences online

20 April 2021
Leo Smith, Head of Global Mobility at De Montfort University shares reflections from moving mobility experiences online during the pandemic.