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In 2019/20 there were 538,600 overseas students studying at UK universities; 22% of the total student population. 143,000 were from the EU and 395,6000 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 four years have seen overseas entrants numbers reach a new high of 307,800 in 2019/20.

The top sending countries for overseas students have changed over the last few years. China currently sends the most students to the UK, almost 102,000 in 2019/20; this number has risen by 90% since 2011/12. In contrast the number of students from some major ‘source’ countries have declined, numbers from Malaysia and Nigeria have fallen by 26% since 2011/12.

There has been a general drop in entrants from the major EU countries since 2011/12; Ireland down by 43%, Cyprus 36%, Germany 29%, Greece 26% and France 18%. Italy and Spain were 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 US. In 2017 the US took 26% of all higher education students 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 from some countries has been attributed to a number of factors such as changes in student visa arrangements, the net migration target and 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 will not participate in the Erasmus+ programme after the end of the current cycle and will develop a new UK mobility programme the Turing Scheme.

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 they are an important contributor 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 6 February 2021 the Government launched an updated International Education Strategy – which reaffirmed its aims to recruit 600,000 international higher education students annually and increase education exports to £35 billion a year 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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