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International students in the UK: facts and perceptions

In January, ACA reported on a first release of 2010/11 enrolment data by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which included quite notable information about the growth in the student population studying “wholly overseas” in UK higher education institutions (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, January 2012). One month later, HESA produced its Students in Higher Education Institutions report, which now provides the public with good insight into the situation of non-UK students enrolled in UK higher education institutions (HEIs) in 2010/11—and their relative importance as 17.1% of the total enrolled student body.

Specifically, the new data show that both EU and non-EU student numbers grew in UK institutions (+4.1% and +6.2%, respectively), against a drop in enrolment rates of UK-domiciled students (-0.7%) in the same year. Other notable findings include the following:

  • Chinese students represent the largest group of non-UK students. A total of 67 325 were present at UK HEIs in 2010/11, an increase of 18.1% from 2009/10.
  • India sent 39 090 students, but this represents just a 1.5% increase in numbers from 2009/10.
  • Apart from China and India, the remaining top 10 sending countries to the UK are, in rank order: Nigeria (17 585), Ireland (16 855), Germany (16 265), United States (15 555), Malaysia (13 900), France (13 325), Cyprus (11 320) and Hong Kong (10 440).
  • Although a much smaller group (10 270) Saudi Arabian student numbers grew by 23.1% between 2009/10 and 2010/11. Even more dramatic, Bulgarian student numbers increased by 35.9% and Romanian by 44.9%. These countries sent 4 615 and 4 625 students, respectively, to the UK.

Interestingly, late February also saw the release by Universities UK of the findings of a YouGov poll focused on public perceptions about international students. The exercise—involving 2 766 adult UK respondents to an online survey carried out in February 2012—revealed some positive sentiments but also “widespread misunderstanding about international students”. For example, 58% agreed that the international higher education market is important to the global competitiveness of UK universities, and 63% think that international students should be allowed to stay and work at the end of their studies. On the other hand, Universities UK is reporting that “more than a third of respondents (36%) incorrectly believe that the recruitment of international students results in the loss of places for home (UK and EU) students”. In reality, international students are offered places in addition to those established (via contracts agreed with the UK government) for UK/EU students. Furthermore, 71% of respondents appear to underestimate (by a whopping 90%) the income earned by the UK from international students, which is currently estimated at GBP 5.3 billion (EUR 6.1 billion).

Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Universities UK