At first glance of the Higher Education Statistical Agency’s data on student enrolments for 2013-14 I breathed a great sigh of relief. International student demand is showing strong signs of recovery. The numbers of EU students look positive, although levels are still below those in 2010.  Demand from India seems to have levelled off at undergraduate level and there’s almost no change in student numbers from Pakistan.

Global demand for English higher education – back on track?

In recent months there have been positive stories about  international students enrolling in numbers greater than ever at universities in the US, Canada, Germany and Australia –  study destinations popular with international students. Following a U-turn in immigration policy Australia experienced a huge surge in demand from India with a remarkable 65 per cent growth in new enrolments (3,650 newly enrolled students). Interestingly, periods of decline in international student enrolments in the US coincide with periods of strong growth in England, which suggests students are choosing between these two countries.

On closer inspection …

But a different picture unfolds when you look behind the top-line summaries. Recruitment of EU students in England faces challenges beyond the higher tuition fees here compared to the continent. Declines in the 18 year old population have affected all EU countries except Denmark and Luxembourg. The new member states have suffered the highest declines in the proportion of their youthful population.

The growth in EU entry to undergraduate and postgraduate studies was concentrated in Italy and Spain, which are among the countries with the highest graduate unemployment and negative growth in their real GDP. Italy and Spain also had some of the highest absolute declines in their 18 year olds among the old member states, which may be an indication that economic drivers of demand are outweighing demographic ones.

Demand from international (non-EU) entrants to undergraduate programmes is mainly driven by countries strong in provision of transnational education:  China, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Nigeria. Our earlier analysis showed strong progression from transnational education courses delivered in these countries to first degree programmes in England.

The long-term sustainability of this growth may be challenged by East Asia’s aspiration to become an education hub (China, Malaysia and Singapore) and its aims to attract international students beyond the boundaries of the region. This may be further exacerbated by the demographic declines in the youthful population in China, Japan and South Korea. Universities in these countries may decide to compensate for potential declines in domestic enrolments by recruiting students from the wider East Asia region – the main source of growth in England.

Postgraduate entry

International entry to postgraduate studies draws a more nuanced picture. Continued declines in some of the traditional postgraduate countries like India and Pakistan have led to a heavy reliance on one country. China now accounts for 37 per cent of all international postgraduate entrants in England, up from 25 per cent in 2010.

The area which is most reliant on international demand is full time taught masters – non UK students account for 74 per cent of the total full time entrants. There are almost equal proportions of Chinese and home entrants – 25 per cent and 26 per cent respectively.

Strong growth of 10 per cent (800 entrants) was noted in international entry to full-time postgraduate research degrees. However, beyond China, growth was mainly concentrated in Iraq, Malaysia and Libya, where more than half of the entrants rely on government funding. It was government sponsored scholars that drove most of the growth in 2013. Whilst this shows a high regard for an English degree, it also suggests vulnerability if overseas governments’ priorities shift. This may present a further challenge if privately funded demand for postgraduate degrees in England continues to decline.

See more in our latest report on global demand