International higher education in the UK in 2024: more resilient than previously considered?

Students on their graduation day

Following a period of sustained growth in international student numbers, buoyed by enabling policy and a welcoming environment pre- and post-pandemic, the UK’s continued success may now be under threat. Divisive rhetoric from politicians, unhelpful policy changes, cost of living crises at home and abroad, and aggressive recruitment strategies from other countries are all combining into a new student recruitment environment for UK universities. 

Should institutions be worried? While it’s not all bad news, investment and innovation must continue according to the experts. 

Swings and roundabouts  

Alex Berka, Insights Manager at QS Quacquarelli Symonds, was recently featured on the blog of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) where he outlined the mixed year facing international student recruitment in the UK in 2024. While there has been a dip in students from Nigeria, in India, there “has been a 46% uplift in the number of offer-holders, rising from 2,523 at this point in the cycle for Jan 2023 to 3,688 for Jan 2024.” Speaking in a recent QS panel discussion, Sergine Monple, Director of Student Recruitment at the University of Wolverhampton agreed, saying that student recruitment in Africa is a “challenging landscape,” – with domestic issues damaging the prospects of international students. 

On QS’, Indian visitors interested in the UK more than quadrupled between 2013 and 2022.

Shivani Bhalla, Head of International Student Recruitment at Brunel University London, also spoke at the panel and urged the audience to not be too concerned, “we are extremely resilient.” Referring to student recruitment recently, she considers the dip to be a “market correction.” This difference in opinion illuminates the challenges institutions are facing as they recruit students in 2024. 

Improving student outcomes to promote the UK as a destination 

Whether the numbers are a market correction or an ongoing issue, it’s clear that UK universities should not rest and further invest in the recruitment or experience of international students in 2024. The final panellist Jamie Arrowsmith, Director of Universities UK, noted “students are really intelligent consumers, they are buying an education experience if they’re coming to a country like the UK. When students are talking about the quality of the experience, they’re not just thinking about university rankings, they’re looking at the outcomes and the very long-term opportunities that degree will secure them.” 

To support students towards a positive outcome, Bhalla detailed activities at Brunel University London like airport pick-ups, a buddy system and ensuring employability resources were available. Monple spoke of how they were trying to ease the impact of the UK’s cost of living crisis by creating a breakfast club on the University of Wolverhampton’s campus among other measures.  

68% of prospective students interested in the UK say their biggest worry about moving to a different country is the cost of living.

Monple also said that they had been developing initiatives to support cultural diversity and have students celebrate their cultural heritage, all helping to create an inclusive environment for students. 

Bhalla added, “There’s always more we can do.” The panellists were all in agreement that listening to the student voice, having current students connect with prospective international students and being upfront with students about challenges they may face while studying here will be appreciated by students – which will help to ensure their expectations are aligned with reality.

Defining diversification 

One key theme of the panel was diversification. Usually thought of as increasing the number of nations prospective students are from, the panel argued that diversity can be realised in many ways. 

“New markets will be smaller in size [than Nigeria, India and China], but their shapes will be very different,” Bhalla said, as students from lower-volume nations look to a broader range of courses and at different levels of study to high-volume markets. She highlighted the European Union, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United States, Canada and Pakistan as markets that have evidenced this behaviour. 

Another way of viewing diversification is increasing the number of people who have the means to study abroad – after all, it’s an expensive business. Through pathway provision and extended scholarships, Arrowsmith argued that we can widen the participation of students in global education. 

Whatever form diversification takes, the fact remains that it’s incredibly important to UK institutions now and in the future. The global perspective an international student brings to the classroom, the world-class research idea they’ve fostered, or the significant economic contribution they bring, all result in a higher education market crying out for more international students. 

Alex Berka in his blog for HEPI writes “It is clear that further diversification will be critical to offsetting the decline in Nigerian volumes for the future. Few markets can sustain the pipeline volumes that China and India have – which means that universities will need to be adaptable and agile when planning ahead, as what might be fertile ground for recruitment one year may not be so fruitful for subsequent intakes.”

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