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In 2018/19 there were 485,600 overseas students studying at UK universities; 20% of the total student population, 54% of full-time taught postgraduates and 49% of full-time research degree students. 143,000 were from the EU and 343,000 from elsewhere.

New overseas entrants to UK universities fell from almost 240,000 in 2010/11 to just over 230,000 in 2015/16. Increases in the last threeyears have seen overseas entrants numbers reach a new high of 267,000 in 2018/19.

The top sending countries for overseas students have changed over the last few years. China currently sends the most students to the UK, more than 86,000 in 2018/19; the number of Chinese students in the UK has risen by 62% since 2011/12. In contrast the number of students from Nigeria has declined significantly; Nigerian student numbers have fallen by 45% since 2011/12. There has also been a more recent decline in numbers from Malaysia.

There has been a general drop in entrants from the major EU countries since 2011/12; Ireland down by 37%, Cyprus 37%, Greece 21%, Germany 18%, and France 14%. Italy was the exception with numbers up by almost half.

In recent years, the UK has been the second most popular global destination for international students after the USA. In 2017 the US took 26% of higher education students from all countries who were studying overseas at universities in the OECD, the UK was in second place with 12%. But market share has been slipping and other English speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada are now seeing significant increases in overseas students as are European countries which are increasingly offering courses in English.

The decline in numbers has been attributed to a numbers of factors such as changes in student visa arrangements, the net migration target and most recently Brexit. The Government has guaranteed to fund EU students until the end of 2020/21, but from 2021/22 EU students will no longer be treated as home students. The UK’s future participation in the Erasmus+ programme is yet to be decided.

Universities UK has estimated that in 2014-15 international students contributed around £25.8 billion in gross output to the UK economy. International students also benefit the UK in other social, cultural and intellectual ways and are an important contributors to the UK’s ‘soft power’ overseas. 

Any decline in student numbers is a concern and providers are particularly worried currently about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the number of international students coming to the UK in 2020/21 and beyond..

On 16 March 2019 the Government launched the International Education Strategy – the Strategy will aim to recruit 600,000 international higher education students annually by 2030. The Government has introduced a two year Graduate Route post study work visa and a three year visa for PhD graduates.

This paper answers some frequently asked statistical and policy questions on international and EU students.


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