International student recruitment: Why aren't we second?

12 August 2020
Red phone box and a bicycle in the UK

Since 2010, the UK has been the second most popular study destination after the US. But competition for international students has increased. The UK is not only facing competition from other English-speaking destinations, but new hubs have emerged in East Asia and the Pacific as well as Central and Eastern Europe. 

Jump forward to today, the current pandemic has caused worldwide disruption to education and life as we know it, providing a tough environment for future student recruitment. So, in addition why the UK has been underperforming, the crucial question now is also, how should the UK approach the current crisis and do better in the long-term? 

UUKi's latest publication, International student recruitment: Why aren't we second?, which was released today in collaboration with Education Insight, is trying to answer exactly those questions.


Shifting mobility patterns

The research highlights that one of the reasons why the UK has lost market share and experienced such low growth rates is the shift in global student mobility. North America and Western Europe hosted almost two thirds of the globally mobile learners in 2010. Seven years later, it is just over 50%. Instead international students have become more attracted to countries in other regions, such as Malaysia, Japan, Turkey and Poland as these countries have significantly strengthened their higher education systems in recent years. Yet, English-speaking study destinations are still very attractive. For example, Australia and Canada experienced a double-digit growth in international student numbers from 2016 and 2017. Geographical location, strong market strategies or attractive post-study work opportunities might have contributed to a competitive advantage over the UK's offer. 

Hopeful prospects

Despite the UK's lost market share, there is positive news for the UK's recruitment performance. International student recruitment: Why aren't we second? shows that the UK performed very well in certain markets such as Hong Kong (SAR) and Malaysia where its ranking improved from second in 2010 to first in 2017. Small market share gains in Indonesia and South Korea demonstrate the UK's continuing attractiveness as well as opportunities for growth in new or less established priority countries. Additionally, the International Education Strategy's set goal of increasing international student numbers to 600,000 by 2030 and the announcement of the post-study work route last year were welcome commitments from government that enabled the UK to become more competitive again. Indications of slowly recovering student numbers from India and Pakistan underline the announcement's positive impact. Finally, we must not forget that the UK is a global leader in transnational education (TNE) provision. The delivery of high-quality degrees overseas widens access to UK education and can facilitate student flows to the UK.

Looking to the future

Inevitably, the Covid-19 pandemic and enforced measures to counter its spread will affect international student recruitment and it is likely that it will reinforce current trends towards regional mobility and increased competition. To address these challenges, the publication defines a series of short-term and mid to long-term recommendations for how the UK can maintain, regain or develop its market position, through tailored approaches and close collaboration between the UK higher education sector and government. Paying careful attention to market sentiments in response to the pandemic and kickstarting the recovery in the short-term, as well as promoting the Graduate route and the UK as a study destination, providing targeted financial initiatives and developing TNE pathways will be essential to improving the UK's performance in the long-term. Current decision-making will impact international student recruitment in the future, and with the right support, and through concerted and collaborative efforts, the UK can strengthen its market position again. 

If you would like to find out more about International student recruitment: Why aren't we second?, you can download the publication here. 

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