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UK universities’ attractiveness to foreign students under threat, says study


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UK universities are losing ground in the race for international students because of high costs, visa difficulties and limited marketing in the face of rising competition from other countries, its officials have warned.

An analysis by Universities UK International, the body that represents higher education abroad, said that Britain’s position as the most popular destination after the US was under threat from institutions elsewhere doing more to encourage applications.

Universities in Germany, France and the Netherlands have been among those offering an expanding range of courses in English at far lower cost to international students, together with a jump in foreign students into other nations, including in Canada, Russia, China and Turkey.

The body called for the provision of more scholarships, reduced visa fees and more concerted promotion of the value of UK education, as well as better measures to help students find work in the country after completing their studies.

“We need to work hard to recover our position in a range of countries where the UK used to be a first or second-choice destination, but isn’t any more,” said Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International.

The study, published on Monday by her organisation, stressed that the UK remained attractive, with 8 per cent of the global market placing it second after the US with 17 per cent. In 2019-20, the UK hosted 550,000 students from abroad, compared with the government’s global education strategy target of 600,000 by 2030.

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However, using the latest comparable data compiled by Unesco, it showed that between 2017 and 2018, the UK’s market share dropped in 16 out of the world’s top 21 sending countries and territories — including Nigeria, Pakistan and India.

The number of international students grew much faster in the next two most popular destinations, Australia and Germany. Since then, even ahead of the near-total freeze on international student migration caused by the coronavirus pandemic since 2020, Australia has been set back by tensions with China, the largest source of those studying abroad.

Recently released data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), which oversees applications, showed the number of applications by the June 30 deadline from EU students was down 43 per cent over the previous year to 28,400, offset by a rise of 14 per cent in non-EU students to 102,000.

Peter William Walsh, researcher at the Migration Observatory at Oxford university, said the trend suggested the UK had become less attractive for students from the EU, which is “likely to be driven by the end of free movement, which introduced the higher international tuition fees for EU students”.

He said the rise in non-EU applicant places was part of a longer-term trend since 2017, but also may reflect post-Brexit visa reforms allowing two years of work post-study for foreign students.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford university, said: “The demand for UK international education is very resilient . . . [It] has advantages as the heartland provider of English language higher education that western Europe cannot match.”

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