Home > Blog > New HESA data on student numbers – our summary

New HESA data on student numbers – our summary

Eleanor Jubb

Eleanor Jubb

Former Policy Manager
Universities UK

Today HESA released statistics on students enrolled in UK higher education in 2015–16, giving us the first full data on student numbers by level, mode, sex, ethnicity, country of study and qualification obtained, among other things.

It’s an incredibly rich dataset and is likely to be pored over by people in the higher education sector looking for patterns and trends. The big story, though, is likely to be what it tells us about the numbers of students coming from outside the UK to study here.

The number of students coming from across the EU is up by 2%, with strong growth in students from Spain and Italy; students from the EU now make up 6% of the student body, up from 5% in 2014–15. This doesn’t tell us much about what might happen in the future though, because the figures are all pre-Brexit and the students recorded in them will have made their decisions to study in the UK before it was clear there was going to be a referendum. The UCAS figures that will be released on 2 February showing numbers of undergraduate applicants from the EU and elsewhere are likely to be a more useful indication here.

Another area likely to be picked up is the very slight fall, by less than 1%, in the numbers of students coming from outside the EU. New, first year students (generally a better indication of what the changes have been and possible future growth) from outside the EU have also fallen slightly, down by 1%. While some areas have seen growth – the number of new students coming from the United States is up by 3% – others have fallen, with new students from India down by 10%, and new students from Nigeria, where Britain has historically been the first choice of overseas education, down by 20%. 

HESA Chart 8: Top ten non-European Union countries of domicile in 2015–16 for higher education student enrolments, 2011–12 and 2015–16




Although this release only covers the year up to summer 2016, it helps to illustrate some of the other data we have on international student numbers because it shows actual enrolment numbers. We have more recent figures, up to the end of September 2016, on the number of student visa applicants who are sponsored by universities, but these aren’t a reliable indicator of international student numbers because not all applicants go on to come here – around 10% don’t, maybe because they've gone to study elsewhere or their circumstances have changed. The reliability of UCAS figures showing falls in the number of international students accepted is similarly limited because many international students don’t use UCAS. And, as we’ve blogged about previously, there are considerable issues with net migration figures on international student numbers.

The data also helps us to compare how the UK is doing with its international competitors. We know from Universities UK Internatio​​nal’s analysis​ of the International Student Barometer that more international students would recommend the UK than the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. The HEPI report released today shows that the UK’s world-leading higher education remains very attractive to international students. But given projected growth in the numbers of university students looking to study outside of their home country (to 8 million by 2025), the UK has the potential to be doing a lot better.

A number of other countries have developed ambitious targets, backed by government action, to increase their numbers of international students. Canada, China and Japan are all looking to double international student numbers by 2020; Australia is looking to increase numbers to nearly three-quarters of a million by 2025; and New Zealand is seeking to double the value of its education exports over 15 years. We’ve already had figures for the United States for the same period as the HESA release, and they show a 5% increase in international students, including a 19% increase in students coming from India and a 14% increase in students coming from Nigeria.*

In 2015 the government made a commitment to increasing international student numbers and to achieving a target of £30 billion in education exports by 2020. In a post-referendum world this is even more important and we should be welcoming international students – not just as an opportunity to grow exports from one of our world-leading sectors, but as contributors to communities all over the UK. However, for this to happen we need an immigration system which welcomes genuine international students.

*This blog was updated on 21 February 2017 due to slight changes in figures for the United States.



Leave a Comment

Lisa Victoria
Lisa Victoria says:
16 January 2017 at 08:42

Hello...! Eleanor Jubb.

Really Interesting and Informative post and the chart also is very easy to read.

Purchasing power: how university procurement teams benefit students and society

29 March 2019
We all benefit from effective purchasing by university procurement teams, writes Professor Nick Petford.

International students

£3.2 billion of tax from each cohort of international students who stay to work in the UK

21 March 2019
Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, digs further into new research on the economic impact of international students who stay on to work in the UK.