Are there too many Chinese and business students in the UK?
Source: Shutterstock

The latest data from UK university admission body UCAS reveals an international student community that isn’t as diverse as both the government and universities might hope.

Firstly, China continues to send the highest number of applications among non-EU nations with this year’s figures rising by a third. Secondly, Business and Administration Studies receive the highest number of applications, as many as 50,380 – nearly twice those received for the second-most popular subject of social studies – according to figures from UCAS’s January deadline.

This huge contribution from China is great news for British universities and the students involved, reflecting the underlying strengths of a world-class university system, according to Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

But Hillman also notes, “It is a shame that we are so dependent on one country for our international students, though, as I would like to see similar growth from other territories too. But I welcome the growth and I also think it will provide the UK with some real soft power benefits in the future, when these people graduate and go back to China with experience here on their CV.”

King’s College London has the fifth-largest international student cohort among UK universities. Source: Facebook/@kingscollegelondon

UK universities may be jumping to internationalise and reap the significantly higher tuition fees paid by international students. Domestic students, on the other hand, aren’t as keen.

A survey of more than 12,000 British undergraduates last year found that more than a fifth (22 percent) believe international students “slow down the class”, and 16 percent claim their presence means “academic discussions are of lower quality”. The majority acknowledged that a more diverse student body gave them a “better worldview”.

That may not be the case anymore judging from the 15,880 applications from China alone this year. Together with applications from Hong Kong (5,100), this brings the grand total to 20,980 applications. This surpasses the number of applications from Wales (18,850) and Northern Ireland (17,910). In 2010, there were only a fraction (4,450) of the number of Chinese applicants seen today, several thousand less than those who originated from Ireland (7,320). Today, the inverse is true.

While we cheer the nine percent overall increase in the number of non-EU candidates, it’s too quick for us to conclude whether this makes for a diverse student body. The data above paints a picture of quite the opposite.

And while Chinese students make up the bulk of international students at other study abroad strongholds such as the US, Canada and Australia, the subject distribution among non-EU students points to another area of concern: UK campuses may be suffering from a lack of diversity of subjects, too.

Business and administration studies have always been the preferred choice among non-EU international students. But while there was more balance with other popular subjects in 2010 – there were 29,780 applications for business vs 18,800 for law and 18,320 for social studies – the latest data reveals that business studies now towers above the rest.

Good career prospects are said to be the reason behind business studies’ popularity. Source: AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas

But this isn’t the true picture of the actual number of students enrolled in these subjects. Looking at numbers from the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), however, we see business’s dominance in applications translating to actual student numbers as well. During the 2016/17 academic year, for example, there were 121,675 international students enrolled in business and administrative studies, far exceeding the next popular subjects of engineering and technology (52,545) and social studies (42,170).

Across the pond, the US higher education landscape also displays an unequal balance of subject uptake between STEM, business and the humanities among international students. But the top three most popular subjects from Open Doors data reveal a more even picture than that of the UK. Engineering is the top field of study among international students in the US with 232,180 students, followed by business and management (196,054) and math and computer science (186,003).

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