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UK: International undergraduate enrolment forecast to climb 46% by 2026

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Following strong foreign enrolment growth in 2021, a new report from UCAS projects surging demand for undergraduate programmes in the UK over the next five years
  • Much of that growth is expected to come from China and India, which remain by far the most important sending markets for the UK

A new report from the UK’s central admissions service, UCAS, projects continuing strong demand for British higher education – in particular, that the volume of international undergraduate applicants will increase by 46% through 2026.

Drawing on UCAS data as well as an early 2022 survey of prospective students conducted by College Board, the report, Where Next? What influences the choices international students make?, highlights the continued appeal of the UK as a study destination. The quality and reputation of British higher ed, the perception of the UK as a safe place to live and study, and the opportunity to be immersed in a new language and culture were among the key factors cited by respondents to the student survey.

“International students are showing extraordinary resilience – the universal appeal of living and studying in another country continues,” said UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant. “Despite the challenges of the pandemic, international students have pursued the opportunities available to them and we forecast sustained growth in interest to study in the UK to continue into the next decade.”

The overall outlook is for substantial growth in application volumes over the next five years, and from both domestic and international students alike. “UCAS projects the 2026 cycle could see one million applicants – around 27% more than in 2021, and double those seen in 2006. About 55% of this increase will be attributable to a growth
in demand from UK 18-year-olds (driven by both an increase in application rates and an increase in the population) with the remaining 45% driven by continued growth in UK mature (10%) and international (35%) demand.”

As the following chart reflects, much of that growth in international volumes will be driven by China and, to a lesser extent, India, both of which are expected to continue to be the leading sources of international students for UK higher education. UCAS adds, “The UK remain heavily dependent on Chinese applicants, which…heightens the need for diversification to maintain the sustainability of the UK’s international recruitment market.”

Actual and projected applicant volumes from leading international markets for UK undergraduate programmes. Source: UCAS

Signs of diversification?

UCAS data indicates that just over half of all international applications for 2021 came from only seven countries, with China accounting for almost a quarter of international applicant volumes for the year.

Make-up of 2021 international UCAS-placed applicants by country of origin. Source: UCAS

“The largest increases in applicant numbers in the last ten years have come from China (+18.8k, +195%), India (+6.8k, +222%), and the US (+4.8k, +165%) – these are also the top three largest international markets and among the ten markets with the largest proportional growth,” explains UCAS. “The next to feature among the top markets for both raw and proportional growth is the UAE – a 247% increase since 2011 (+2.1k), followed by Turkey with a 233% growth (+1.1k), and South Africa with 229% growth (+0.6k).”

More recently, Nigeria is among the ten fastest-growing markets for the UK over the last five years (+1.7k, +102%), as is Pakistan (+1.1k, +59%). If we narrow the frame to just the last two years, Hong Kong emerges as another notable growth market (+1.3k, +23%) during that window as does Ireland (+1.2k, +29%). UCAS adds, “The US has had an unexpected surge in demand just in the last year, with the second largest proportional one-year increase (+2.7k, +53%) after [only] Nigeria.”

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