The United Kingdom sees a rise in international students in 2021 and 2022

The United Kingdom’s student population is going through some interesting composition shifts. New data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals that a growing proportion of foreign students are making up the UK’s student population; about 45 per cent of postgraduate students in 2021/2022 were from outside the UK, up by 10 per cent from 2017/2018. To boot, the countries that are emerging as key sources of this growth might not be what you’d expect. 


After Brexit, enrolments from the European Union have steadily declined. Only 33,715 postgraduate students in 21/22 came from EU countries, down from 43,765 in 20/21. For the first time, more first-year students in the UK were from Nigeria (32,945) than from the whole of the EU (31,400). The total number of students from Nigeria more than doubled, reaching 44,195 in 21/22 compared to 21,305 the previous year. 


Alongside students from Nigeria, the number of Indian students pursuing their postgraduate studies in the UK also shot up in 21/22. In fact, this is also the first time in UK history that Indian students outnumbered the Chinese. While the number of Chinese students pursuing their postgraduate studies in the UK grew from approximately 5,000 to 88,755, Indian students at the same level jumped by almost 40,000 to 101,765. In total, the number of Indian students coming to the UK jumped from 84,555 to 126,535. 


What does this mean for the UK?

Given the valuable contributions that foreign students make to the UK, this increase in postgraduate students is excellent news. Apart from the economic gains they bring (international students bring nearly £26 billion to the UK economy because of their contributions through fees and spending), they also contribute positively to the UK’s global connections in trade and politics. 


That being said, the huge loss of students from the EU could bring instability to UK universities whose student populations were largely composed of EU students. Some EU countries like Portugal, Spain, Romania and Poland showed small growth over the five years since 2017, but the number of EU students overall is still continuously shrinking. 


Charley Robinson, head of global mobility policy at Universities UK International, emphasises the growing importance of maintaining stable and competitive immigration policies. Ideally, these policies should be designed to increase international student enrolment to provide the UK with a competitive edge over other major countries receiving international students where border controls are more restrictive.

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