UK universities
During the pandemic, 88% of students viewed the UK as a positive, or very positive, place to study, with 77% applying because of the UK’s strong academic reputation, said UCAS. Source: Oli Scarff/AFP

Applications to UK universities from international students are set to remain strong in the coming years.

In a new report titled “Where Next? What influences the choices international students make?” — UCAS forecasts that the volume of international undergraduate applicants will increase by 46% to 208,500 by 2026.

The report, done in collaboration with the College Board, also shows that during the pandemic, 88% of students viewed the UK as either a positive or very positive place to study; 77% said they were applying because of the UK’s “strong academic reputation”.

“During the pandemic, over 155,000 international students chose the UK as their destination of choice and begun their undergraduate studies with 88% of international applicants continuing to see the UK as a positive or very positive place to study,” it said.

applications for uk universities

Applications to UK universities from international students are set to remain strong in the coming years. Source: Isabel Infantes/AFP

Applications to UK universities: Buoyed by post-study prospects

While the reputation of universities or colleges was a standout factor for half of the respondents when deciding where to study, the next three most important factors are the reputation of countries as a safe place to study and live; the opportunity to experience a different culture; and knowledge of the language. 

Affordability is the sixth most important factor, both overall and for those applying or considering applying to the UK, states the report.

“We know that for the 2021 cycle, around two thirds (69%) of international applicants applying to the UK say they are intending to self-fund, relative to 4% of domestic students. This has increased nine percentage points since 2020, which saw changes to student support arrangements following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU,” it said.

Other findings include the popularity of big cities for internationally mobile students. 

“We also found that international applicants to the UK are more likely to be accepted to major urban areas such as Greater London and Greater Manchester than home students (49% vs 42%), suggesting that big cities, which often have good transport links, may be more popular destinations for internationally mobile students,” the report states. 

“This finding is also reflected in College Board’s research where international students in the 2021 cohort aspired to attend medium-sized universities (5-15K enrolled) in large cities.” 

Other findings include:

  • Motivation differs by nation. A total of 80% of Nigerian students are most interested in gaining skills to support them in their careers. Conversely, 75% of respondents from India said the most important factor is that higher education options are of “better quality” than at home
  • Prospects after graduation appear to be more important for those wanting to study in the US (57%), Singapore (54%) and the UK (54%) 
  • Students are five times more likely to say securing a job in their destination country, rather than their home nation, is their top priority
  • In 2021, more than half of international students accepted through UCAS to study in the UK came from seven countries, with two in every nine coming from China

In a statement, UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant said findings from this joint research with College Board focus on international students’ mindsets and what they want from their higher education experience. 

“International students are showing extraordinary resilience – the universal appeal of living and studying in another country continues,” she said.

“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.

Over 1,200 students from 116 countries took part in the joint survey.

UK post-study work options

Separately, the UK has been bolstering efforts to woo international talent after Brexit.

Among its post-study work options include the Graduate Route, which allows international graduates to apply for the right to stay for a job experience at the end of their university programmes.

It is valid for up to two years. Students cannot extend their Graduate visa, but they can switch to a different visa, for example, a Skilled Worker visa, which allows them to come to or stay in the UK to do an eligible job with an approved employer

The UK’s new work visa scheme, the High Potential Individual (HPI) visa — which opens today — aims to attract high skilled overseas talent who have graduated from some of the world’s top universities.

It allows graduates to come to the UK without a job offer. Individuals can apply for the HPI route if they have graduated from an eligible international university in the five years immediately before their application.