UK universities to see end of ‘post-Covid boom’ in international student numbers

British universities are likely to see the “post-Covid boom” in international student mobility come to an end this year, a report has found.

Changes to migration policy and the increasing costs of UK study could see inbound student mobility to the UK decline for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the British Council.

Universities in the UK will be under greater pressure to communicate more proactively to Chinese students about graduate routes and career service offerings amid rising youth unemployment in China, researchers have said.

It comes after Universities UK (UUK) announced last week that it would review international student admissions processes following concerns about the recruitment practices of overseas students.

The British Council report – which warned of “short-term pain” in international recruitment – has predicted that 2024 will be a “transitional year” for British universities as they adjust to slower growth rates and rising competition.

Researchers studied changes in UK study visa issuance, UK share of international students, changes in GBP exchange rates in the UK’s largest student markets and US study visa data.

The report concluded that growth in new enrolments of international students will “slow” in the UK.

A strong pound in 2024 could put the cost of British education “out of reach for a significant share of international students” as parents experience “sticker shock” when viewing the UK fees, the research has suggested.

This will be felt most acutely in some of the UK’s largest student markets – such as Nigeria, Pakistan and Ghana, as well as in some of the developed markets of east Asia.

The re-emergence of the US education market also presents increased competition for the UK, the report found.

It has predicted that the US will present a “more welcoming face” to international students than the UK, Australia or Canada where migration policies will make recruitment “more challenging”.

Researchers have suggested that the greatest uncertainty hanging over the long-term direction of the US education market is politics – with the recovery trend heavily dependent on the country’s presidential election in November.

The report said: “In all four major host markets – Australia, Canada, the UK and US – the number of international student enrolments has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

“This means new enrolments will likely increase more slowly in 2024 (and beyond) as these markets revert to the steady but unremarkable long-term growth rates that preceded the pandemic.”

The report concluded: “Inbound student mobility to the UK could decline in 2024 for the first time since the pandemic due to a combination of mostly cyclical headwinds.

“But this is a natural correction that will put the UK back on its long-term pre-Covid growth trajectory.”

Researchers have called for British universities to shift their focus of international student recruitment from “quantity-based metrics to quality-based ones”.

It comes after universities minister Robert Halfon last month announced an investigation into allegations of “bad practice” by agents who recruit international students to study at British universities.

A recent Sunday Times article alleged that overseas students – who pay higher tuition fees – were being offered places with lower grades at UK universities than domestic applicants.

In England, university tuition fees for domestic undergraduate students have been frozen at £9,250 a year since 2017. But there is no cap on international student fees.

Leaders in the higher education sector have previously suggested that British universities may need to recruit more international students if undergraduate tuition fees remain frozen.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of UUK, said: “International students are hugely beneficial both for UK universities and their wider communities, with a single intake bringing in over £40 billion to the UK economy in one year.

“Government is rightly focused on strong economic growth, and damaging our competitiveness as a study destination would be an act of economic self-harm.”

She added: “The British Council data demonstrates that the combined impact of government policy, rhetoric and a slowdown following the extraordinary years of the pandemic are having an effect, and international student numbers are falling.

“We are also in competition with other countries when it comes to attracting students. Students and universities need stability to plan for the future – so we are calling on the Government to commit to supporting both international student admissions and to protect the graduate route.”

Maddalaine Ansell, director education at the British Council, said: “UK education undoubtedly remains well positioned for long-term success due to its strong foundations and a reputation for world-class quality.

“The British Council will continue to engage with the UK higher education sector, students, agents and influencers worldwide to ensure the UK continues to recruit highly qualified international students from across the globe and enables the exchange of learning and ideas and the formation of partnerships that benefit individuals, institutions and wider society.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We are fully focused on striking the right balance between acting decisively to tackle net migration, which we are clear is far too high, and attracting the brightest students to study at our universities.

“Our approach will ensure high-quality courses give students the skills and experience they need to progress. We continue to provide significant financial support to higher education, which was recognised by the Office for Students who declared that the overall financial position of the sector remains robust.”