Can the UK remain a top study destination for international students amidst growing uncertainties?

Four students on a university campus

Dr Helen Kelly, Principal Consultant at QS, dives in to the data on how the UK is perceived by international students, and what the UK can do to continue to be a premier educational hub.

The UK’s appeal as a destination for international students stands at a crossroads. The QS International Student Survey 2023 indicates a shift in perception, with 62% of 62,880 prospective students perceiving the UK as becoming more welcoming. That’s compared to 35% in a 2021 pulse survey on QS’ student-facing website,   

This positive change comes as UK institutions have surpassed the ambitious targets set out in the International Education Strategy to enrol 600,000 international students each year by 2030 for the last two years. However, this success story is overshadowed by uncertainties and challenges at both national and global levels. 

Over the course of the last four years, the UK sector has undergone significant growth fuelled by a combination of global factors: the COVID-19 pandemic led to extended border closures by key competitors, inadvertently making the UK a more appealing option for students; and turbulent geo-politics during Trump’s presidency in the US shifted global perceptions, making the UK a more attractive study destination by comparison. Perhaps of most significance, however, was the UK’s swift transition to digital and hybrid learning models in response to the pandemic, which markedly boosted its competitive edge.

There’s a clear imperative to counter the dominant narrative by highlighting the significance of international education for the UK’s economy, societal fabric, and global competitiveness.   

While these factors solidified the UK’s status as a premier educational hub, the question of maintaining this position amidst ongoing uncertainties remains a subject of debate. It is by no means certain that the government’s 2030 target will continue to be met year-on-year for the remainder of this decade. Though, even if the size and scale of incoming students continues, the shape and make-up of the international student cohort will most likely continue to evolve.   

The start of a decline? 

According to a new report, the UK higher education sector has seen a decline in enrolments from both India and Nigeria in the September 2023 intake. The question is whether this decline is a sign of things to come or is a blip in institutional recruitment strategies, as QS Insights Manager Alex Berka asks

From a dataset of 16,000 offer holders at QS partner institutions and web traffic data from, there has been a 40% fall in the number of undergraduate and postgraduate Nigerian offer holders from 4,405 in January 2023 to 2,619 in January 2024. The cap on student dependant visas, the recent free-fall of Nigerian currency and a stronger interest in study in the US are all part of the shifting landscape.  

But further political complexities in the UK such as the prospect of a general election in 2024 adds to a wider sense of uncertainty. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s stance on ‘rip-off degrees’, along with the latest announcement that the government will review post-study visas to curb migration, all points to an evolving policy framework. 

Amid broader immigration debates and discussions – including the government’s five-point plan to reduce post-study work visas that would result in 300,000 fewer people being eligible to enter the country – there’s a clear imperative to counter the dominant narrative by highlighting the significance of international education for the UK’s economy, societal fabric, and global competitiveness.   

Beyond our own borders, the perception of the UK as a welcoming destination of choice is essential if we are to continue to attract international students. We need to ensure that we amplify the positives of studying in the UK from both an experiential and graduate outcome perspective to maintain our competitive edge.   

The UK on the world stage 

Internal policy changes are not the only factors influencing the UK’s appeal as a study destination. External challenges, such as the student housing crisis and rising living costs, are also shaping international perspectives. 

The student accommodation crisis, as detailed in a recent HEPI and Unipol report, coupled with the cost-of-living concerns expressed by 68% of the 62,880 respondents to the QS International Student Survey 2023 who are considering studying in the UK, are pressing issues that demand attention. The UK must urgently tackle challenges such as living costs and student welfare, to ensure it remains an appealing and feasible option for a growing number of international learners. 

With a general election on the horizon in 2024, the ongoing debate around public funding for higher education will once again come into sharp focus.   How the UK manages an increasingly underfunded education system remains uncertain, but its implications directly impact the sustainability of the UK’s prestigious reputation and high-quality offering for students across the world.   

How can the UK maintain its position moving forward? 

As it stands, the UK is currently well-positioned to attract a significant number of international students to its institutions, aiming to boost educational exports to £35 billion annually. For the higher education sector to continue to thrive, however, it’s essential to establish a more predictable and stable environment for international student recruitment.  

This stability becomes even more critical as we navigate growing uncertainties in the global market, including geo-political challenges. Understanding student expectations, motivations and perspectives in the QS International Student Survey can support universities to deliver both the experiences students are looking for and stronger messages around the topics students find most important in their decision-making.  

Achieving this will not only reinforce the UK’s status as a premier international education hub, but also ensure sustained growth and success for our higher education sector.

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