Despite early predictions that the coronavirus pandemic would cause international student numbers to decline, the UK is set for a record increase, with enrolments from non-EU international students up 9% this academic year.
Universities had feared that a fall in international student numbers would lead to a significant loss in revenue from tuition fees. For now, at least, this has been averted.
It is too soon to say whether a dip in international student numbers has been avoided completely or is still on the horizon for future years. Nevertheless, there are several explanations for why international students are attracted to British universities. These include global politics, opportunities for employment and perceived teaching quality.
Global politics have a direct impact on higher education. This is particularly relevant for relations with China, the country where the largest number of international students originate.
Increased tension between China and the US has led to the cancellation of thousands of visas for Chinese students to study in the US. One of the reasons for this is Chinese students’ supposed ties to the Chinese military. The Trump administration has claimed that Chinese international students seek access to American intellectual property or sensitive technologies.
These claims have been challenged, but may still lead Chinese students to reconsider their plans to study in the US.
The way countries have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic will also affect the number of international students they attract. For the US – where international student numbers have been falling since 2015 – perceptions of a botched response to the pandemic and fears of future visa policy changes may lead to a further decline.
Other countries have become less attractive to international students due to their actions during the pandemic. For example, in a widely criticised move, the Australian government encouraged foreign students to return home. Australia and New Zealand’s borders continue to be closed to foreign nationals.
This may mean that the UK has become more attractive as an alternative destination. A survey by a Chinese education agency found that the UK has surpassed the US as a destination of choice for students.
The UK also offers students several other advantages. Undergraduate courses last three years and most masters degrees one year, which is shorter than degree programmes in countries such as the US. While tuition fees in the UK are high in comparison with other countries, these shorter courses keep overall costs down.
The reintroduction of the two year post-study work visa may also encourage international student applications. This means students can stay in the UK and seek employment after completing a degree. It is aimed particularly at Indian students, whose numbers dropped significantly when the post-study work visa was removed in 2010.
Most students continue to feel the UK offers a high quality of teaching, although not without reservations. Students from East Asia are more likely to express disappointment about their learning experiences – a major concern given the UK’s reliance on Chinese students. Reasons may include cultural and historical differences in approaches to education and a failure by universities to focus consistently on inclusive and innovative teaching practices.
We cannot assume that a recruitment crisis has been fully avoided. Ongoing concerns include rising numbers of COVID cases on campuses and stringent lockdown measures which have seen students instructed to self-isolate or avoid socialising outside their accommodation.
For international students, discrimination and racism is a key concern, especially for students from China or East Asian countries. Research shows that safety is a priority for applicants and their families. COVID-related discrimination has been widely reported and remains unaddressed, despite calls for universities to actively combat xenophobia.
International students are also looking for experiences beyond the classroom. One test will be whether British universities can still offer adequate social and cultural opportunities for international students, despite reduced opportunities for socialising.
Altogether, future international student recruitment depends greatly on the experiences provided by UK universities in the coming months. There are opportunities for UK universities to provide meaningful learning and life experiences for international students through empathy and care. Yet, this requires investment and support for staff by university leadership, providing necessary resources and manageable workloads amid unanticipated student numbers and shifts to online learning.