Overseas applications to UK universities rise for second time

The number of international students applying for undergraduate courses at universities across the UK has seen an increase for the second consecutive year. According to recent figures, 115,730 international applicants registered for the upcoming September intake, a slight rise from 114,910 the previous year.

This uptrend occurs despite new stringent government policies aimed at reducing migration numbers and follows reports that universities may have lowered admission standards to attract more overseas students, who are often charged higher tuition fees than domestic students.

There has been a call for a review of admission processes after allegations that universities have compromised academic standards to boost their intake of international students, who provide significant financial benefits. The claims have sparked significant debate about the fairness of admission criteria. Despite these controversies, the appeal of UK higher education continues to grow, even with the restrictions placed on international student applications due to pandemic-related travel limitations.

Dr Jo Saxton, Chief Executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), has reassured that the increase in applications from international students should not worry domestic applicants, as the number of UK students applying has also been on the rise. It is important to note that most international students in the UK enrol in postgraduate courses, which are not reflected in the UCAS data. This data indicates a recovery from the drop seen during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the highest pre-pandemic application number was 116,110.

However, Vivienne Stern, Chief Executive of Universities UK, voiced concerns about the potential fall in overall international student numbers, which could be detrimental to the financial health of universities. Stern highlighted that last year’s rise in applications did not necessarily translate into increased enrolments, describing the situation as unstable and potentially harmful for universities that rely heavily on international tuition fees to subsidise domestic education.

The financial implications are significant, with international students paying up to £38,000 per year for undergraduate courses, compared to the capped fee of £9,250 for UK students. Despite these high fees, the cap on tuition fees for domestic students has risen only marginally since 2012, from £9,000 to £9,250, which has caused concern among educational institutions about keeping pace with inflation.

The Russell Group has expressed worries about a financial shortfall, estimating that universities are compensating for a £2,500 deficit per domestic undergraduate student due to diminished value in student loans and government teaching grants. This financial strain comes as international student enrolments have shown growth from 469,160 in the 2017-18 academic year to 679,970 in 2021-22, primarily driven by increased postgraduate applications.

Moreover, the introduction of stricter migration rules this year, which limit international students from bringing family members unless enrolled in research or government-funded programmes, adds another layer of complexity. These regulations, coupled with increased global competition and changing UK government rhetoric, could pose further challenges to maintaining the influx of international students.

In response to these pressures, UK universities continue to navigate a landscape marked by financial constraints and changing policy environments, aiming to balance their economic needs with maintaining academic integrity and fairness in admissions. As debates and reviews unfold, the sector remains a critical component of the UK’s education export strategy, driving significant economic benefits while facing ongoing challenges in recruitment and operational stability.