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31st Jan 2024

International enrolment drop at York sounds alarm for UK higher education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The University of York is reporting a 16% drop in international enrolments in 2023
  • This reflects a broader pattern in UK higher education in that York’s financial position relies increasingly on international tuition revenues, and on Chinese students

The University of York has emerged this month as something of a bellwether for international enrolment trends in UK higher education. Against a backdrop of weakening demand from key non-EU sending markets, and growing concern over the reliance of UK institutions on international tuition revenue, the university reported a 16% drop in foreign student numbers for 2023.

Financial statements for the year highlight that a "failure to increase or maintain and diversify international student recruitment" represents a significant risk and that, "growth in international student numbers remains a key strategic priority to ensure the financial sustainability of the University."

The importance of international tuition revenue looms ever larger for UK institutions this year as they grapple with a continuing freeze on domestic tuition rates combined with inflationary pressure on operating and programme delivery costs.

For its part, York reports that its full-time foreign enrolment decreased from 6,145 in 2021/22 to 5,185 in 2022/23 (-15.6%). Revenues from international tuition declined over the same period, from £102 million to £97 million (-5%).

A University of York spokesperson said: “The increased student numbers in 2021/22, which exceeded trends because of the impacts of COVID, have now returned to pre-COVID growth levels."

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) notes meanwhile that York is highly reliant on China for its non-EU enrolment. Chinese students made up 56% of the international student body at the university in the 2021/22 academic year.

The same could be said of the sector as a whole in that HESA indicates that China was the leading sender for UK higher education through 2021/22. But the Chinese market has been notably slow to recover after the pandemic, and there were signs, even two years ago, of softening demand.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), said that a “stay close to home” enrolment trend was playing a part in UK enrolment trends, and also helping to boost Chinese numbers in regional destinations like Hong Kong and Singapore.

He noted the impact of China's record-high levels of youth unemployment on student decision making, along with the delayed impact of the re-opening of Australia's borders after the pandemic. "UK universities have lost a large number of enrolments from China and India for the simple reason that Australia’s national borders were closed for two years," he said. "Affordability, employability, and proximity are all pull factors that have favoured Australia in the last two years."

Meanwhile, updated Enroly data for the January 2024 intake finds that CAS issuance (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies) was down by -36% compared to the January 2023 intake, with deposits off by -37%. These are notable declines year-over-year but not nearly as severe as the outlook from earlier Enroly reports.

Its annual report reinforces York's commitment to expanding and diversifying the university's international enrolment. There are additional challenges to factor in those plans, however. These include changing government policy – including the current review of post-study work rights – and a wave of negative press coverage, most recently in a widely criticised investigative "cash for courses" report in The Sunday Times that conflated international foundation programmes with full degrees.

The sector has been quick to respond to the report. "The Sunday Times story fails to distinguish between entry requirements for International Foundation Years and full degrees," said Universities UK Chief Executive Vivienne Stern. "International Foundation Years are designed to prepare students to apply for full degree programmes. They do not guarantee entry to them. They are designed for students who come from different education systems where, in many cases, students might have completed 12 rather than 13 years of education…It must be understood that entry routes for international students will reflect the diverse countries and education backgrounds that these students come from, and that some will need bridging courses to enable them to progress to UK degrees."

Those important corrections and clarifications notwithstanding, press coverage of that sort reflects in part a shifting political and public mood with respect to immigration and student mobility. We are seeing similar shifts in other major destinations this year, and they will necessarily influence strategies for all institutions and recruiters going forward.

For additional background, please see:

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