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Overseas student numbers

In 2020/21, there were 605,100 overseas students across all types of UK higher education institutions. This was an increase of 109,000 since 2018/19 and meant the Government’s target of 600,000 international students by 2030 was met 10 years early. This figure includes around 21,000 overseas students who were studying at alternative providers. These are institutions which do not receive direct public funding. The rest of this briefing excludes alternative providers in order to give a consistent time series.

Numbers excluding alternative providers

584,100 overseas students were studying at UK universities, 148,100 from the EU and 436,000 from elsewhere. This was another new record total and 22% of the total student population.

In 2015/16, the number of new overseas entrants to UK universities was just over 230,000, increases in the last five years saw overseas entrants numbers reach a new high of 318,400 in 2020/21.

The top sending countries for overseas students have changed over the last few years.

  • China currently sends the most students to the UK, just over 97,000 in 2020/21; this number has risen by 82% since 2011/12 despite a fall in 2020/21.
  • The number of students from some major ‘source’ countries has declined, for example, numbers from Malaysia and Thailand have fallen by around 50% since 2011/12.
  • There has been a general drop in entrants from the major EU countries since 2011/12; Cyprus down by 37%, Ireland 35%, Germany 34%, Greece 31%, and France 19%. Italy and Spain were the exception with numbers up by 41% and 62%.

In recent years, the UK has been the second most popular global destination for international students after the US. In 2019, it was overtaken by Australia and fell to third. Other English-speaking countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, are also seeing substantial increases in overseas students, as are European countries which are increasingly offering courses in English.

Government policy on international students

International Education Strategy

The UK Government’s International Education Strategy sets out actions to meet ambitions to:

  • increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030;
  • increase the total number of international students choosing to study in the UK higher education system each year to 600,000 by 2030

The latter ambition was met for the first time in 2020/21, with 605,130 international higher education students studying in the UK in universities, further education colleges, and alternative providers.


There was a sharp decline (40%) in applications for undergraduate study in the UK from EU countries in 2021/22. The number of EU accepted applicants fell by 50% in 2021/22. EU Applications for 2022/23 up to the 30 June pre-clearing deadline were down again by a further 18%.

New students arriving from the EU to start courses from August 2021 are generally no longer eligible for home student status, which means they must pay international fees and will not qualify for tuition fee loans. Students who started courses on or before 31 July 2021 remain eligible for support for the duration of their course.

In September 2021, the Turing Scheme replaced the Erasmus+ programme in providing funding for participants in UK universities to go on international study and work placements. The decision not to fund students coming to the UK as part of the Turing Scheme has prompted concern there will be a decrease in international students and the benefits they bring to the UK.

Student and graduate visas

In October 2020, a new ‘student route’ for international students applying for visas to study in the UK opened, replacing the previous Tier 4 (General) student visa.

In July 2021, a new post-study work visa for international students, the ‘Graduate route’, opened. The graduate visa gives international graduates permission to stay in the UK for two years after successfully completing a course in the UK. For graduates who completed a PhD or other doctoral qualification, the visa lasts for 3 years.


Research income from the EU was worth £883 million to UK universities in 2019/20, or 14% of total research income. It included grants and contracts from EU Government bodies, charities, and the private sector.

Research income from non-EU overseas sources was £591 million, or 9% of all research income in the same year.

The costs and benefits of international students to the UK

A September 2021 London Economics report estimated the 2018/19 first-year cohort of international students would bring a net economic benefit of £25.9 billion to the UK over the course of their studies.

The report estimated the £2.9 billion economic cost of international students (from the teaching grant, student support for EU students, and cost of providing public services to students and their dependents) was outweighed by the £28.8 billion brought in through tuition fees, living cost expenditure, and the related knock-on (or ‘indirect’ and ‘induced’) effects of this spending throughout the UK economy.

Alongside these economic benefits, surveys have shown international students benefit the UK higher education experience by bringing an outward-looking culture to campuses and preparing students for working in a global environment.

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