What’s the evidence on… international student recruitment

What are the key trends in international student recruitment at the moment?

By Maia Chankseliani, Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education, Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford

The UK-domiciled students constitute 81% of all HE students in this country. The remaining 19% come from outside the UK.

 The total number of non-UK domiciled students is 438,010. Out of these, 8.4% of the UK students come from Asian countries, 5.6% come from the EU countries, 1.5% from Africa, 1.3% from the Middle East, and only 1.2% from North America.[1]

The numbers of the first-year non-UK domiciled students have been increasing steadily till 2010/2011 (almost 239,260). Since then the numbers of first-year non-UK domiciled students have been fluctuating but never reaching the 2010/2011 indicator.

Note: Own calculations based on the HESA data  (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/international-study)

Where do these students come from?

Almost 27% of all first-year non-UK domiciled students come from China. The next largest senders are the EU countries with 26% of all first-year UK-enrolled international students. North American students constitute only 7% of all first-year non-UK domiciled students.(Own calculations based on the HESA data  (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/international-study)

When looking at the trends in the numbers of first-year students coming to study in the UK from different parts of the world, we observe that in the last ten years (comparing 2006/2007 and 2015/2016 statistics):

  • the number of students from China more than doubled
  • the number of students from the Middle East almost doubled
  • the number of the students coming from the EU countries has increased by approximately 7%
  • there are some increases in student numbers from Malaysia, Australasia, and other Asian countries, as well as South America.
  • the number of students from India decreased by almost 30%, and the number of students from African countries has stayed the same.

The UK HEIs have developed extensive overseas operations. There are large numbers of transnational students studying wholly overseas for a UK higher education qualification. The number was 672,905[2] in 2015/2016. This number is 34% higher than the total number of non-UK domiciled students enrolled at UK HEIs in the UK in the same year (438,010).

Can UK universities use international recruitment to compensate for a drop in the number of 18 year-old domestic applicants?

Yes and no, the response to this question depends on the rationale of internationalisation for specific UK HEIs. There are different types of HEIs in the UK and the rationales that drive international recruitments differ significantly by the type of HEI.

As varied and expansive phenomenon, HE internationalisation may be driven by four categories of rationales: political, economic, academic, and socio-cultural. The four rationales adopt different shapes and meanings when applied to the domain of international student mobility in different global contexts. HEIs may view international students as sources of income, ambassadors for the recipient university, contributors to the improvement of educational and research experiences of local students and staff which increasingly relates to global university rankings.

My recent study that combined numeric and narrative data has shown that a sample of UK university admissions/international officers felt neither HEIs nor the government had one exclusive rationale but a combination of rationales for international student recruitment. In the hierarchy of rationales the economic rationale seemed to be prevailing. All interviewees demonstrated a strong awareness of the marketisation of the UK HE sector and the revenue that international students generate in the context of the consistently decreasing funding from the government and the business sector. A quote from a Scottish HEI representative:

‘Unfortunately, international students are seen as absolutely crucial to continued survival and continued funding to what the universities are doing. The more government funding goes down, the more importance is placed on the recruitment of those students to make up for gaps in funding’

Some respondents talked about ‘spreading the risk’ by diversifying the countries from which they were recruiting, keeping the focus primarily on those countries that had ‘students capable of paying fees. […] As far as the enrolled overseas students are providing funds that cover their cost of study at our university with a good surplus, those students will be a very good target for our university’ (a welsh HEI).

Although the academic and socio-cultural rationales of international student recruitment amongst UK HEIs were prominent, these were not confirmed to be quite as strong as in the wider European context. Experiences of exchange and interaction were particularly valued in ‘fairly monocultural’ contexts where some HEIs interviewed were located. The presence of international students, it was claimed, opened the eyes and broke down barriers for home students: ‘even getting them to come down the valley this far towards [the city name] is a big thing for some of those students. They are going to have to learn to deal with people from different backgrounds, from different cultures’ (another Welsh HEI).

Local communities in which the universities were embedded also benefitted from the exposure to international students:

‘This university is very conscious of the role that they play in the city. Being able to bring in different voices, different ideas because the city is in the process of trying to regenerate itself. An organisation like a university is critical to that and the more international facing and the global the university, the better that makes it for the city. Because we would arguably be much more internationally faced and global-minded than some of the other organisations in the city’ (an English HEI)

Although the economic rational seems to be the driving force of HE internationalisation in the UK and many HEIs would, therefore, seek to recruit more international students to compensate for a drop in the number of 18 year-olds domestic applicants, this may not be the case across the entire UK HE sector. Universities receiving large number of applications from the UK and abroad are likely to focus on the quality rather than the quantity. My study demonstrated that Russell Group intuitions interviewed continued to benefit from a large pool of academically excellent applicants from all over the world: ‘We have tunnel vision on this. The reason why we admit international students is because they are bright. We really don’t care where you’re from. What we want is the brightest students’ (an English HEI). This linked with the idea of a university being a global place that expands the possibilities of thinking big when there are a lot of international students enrolled at the institution:

[University] is not just a local education institution. Any ambitious university wants to be global and that means attracting students from all over and that’s not just a financial question. That’s also about being global. It’s in the nature of a university. You got to think big. (another English HEI)

However, increasing diversity on campus was not always viewed as beneficial to learning and teaching, especially so when the international student body contained a disproportionately high number of a specific group of students. For example, China was recognised at the biggest market for the UK HE sector but it was acknowledged that HEIs ‘don’t want a whole classroom full of Chinese students; [they] need a mix’ (an English HEI). Universities tried to ensure that there was a mix of students from the Middle East, from the Americas, and Russia and Kazakhstan were also areas of their interest (the same English HEI).  It was also feared that a high proportion of foreign students in the classroom would cause a ‘backlash from home students’ (a Scottish HEI), especially in a class where the majority were non-native speakers of English. For some universities it was a challenge to achieve ‘a good mix of students from all over the world,’ to avoid the situation of one international student group dominating the campus (an English HEI). One interviewee claimed that as soon as the institution would go over 15% of international students on campus, they would start to skew the overall student experience, primarily for home students. ‘The balance in terms of numbers’ was suggested as a key indicator of successful internationalisation (a Welsh HEI).

In contrast, those HEIs that rely on student fees for their survival in the highly competitive environment, are likely to expand their recruitment efforts overseas as well as start/expand their efforts of providing UK degrees wholly or partially overseas.

Universities that received more income from research rather than from tuition fees argued that ‘by creating this international community of learners on campus, you’re creating the opportunity that in the future you have more international partnerships and research collaborations across the world’ (a Scottish HEI). This was an important aspect of internationalisation for such universities as ‘in the long-term, you have people connected in a huge alumni network around the world and connected back to the university that we can work with academically and on a research basis’ (the same Scottish HEI).

Are there other issues facing the UK university sector in terms of student recruitment, on which you would like to comment?

Brexit is one such issue. Will Brexit have any influence on the UK HE internationalisation?

Although some argue that ‘insularity is not the way forward’[3], Brexit is Brexit and it will most likely result into further isolation of the UK from Europe and a decrease in the number of EU students studying in this country. When the UK leaves the EU, students from the EU countries will most likely not be eligible for undergraduate loans in the UK to cover their tuition fees. With the new reality of Brexit will UK HEIs be more inclined to look at non-traditional recruitment markets more closely?

For this purpose, HEIs will require comprehensive strategies of internationalisation. My empirical results indicate that very few HEIs in the UK have such strategies in place. The interview data collected for this study confirmed the idea that internationalisation is a fragmented process that rarely follows a comprehensive strategy. A commonly held view among our respondents (UK HEI admissions/international offices) was that the status quo of having no explicit recruitment strategy would need to change as soon as possible since the competition for international students was getting increasingly fierce.

Further reading: Chankseliani, M., & Hessel, G. (2016). International student mobility from Russia, Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia to the UK: trends, institutional rationales and strategies for student recruitment (Research report). Oxford, UK: The Centre for Comparative and International Education, University of Oxford. Retrieved from https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid%3Afdbb4023-16fe-4542-9b2b-1b47993acf68 (free to access)

Chankseliani, M. (Forthcoming). Four rationales of HE internationalisation:  perspectives of UK universities on attracting students from former Soviet countries. Journal of Studies in International Education. The accepted manuscript of the journal article can be downloaded from https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:9c6928f2-a688-4a33-9708-3417a1cc56b5 (free to access)

[1] https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/publications/students-2015-16

[2] https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/international-study

[3] http://theconversation.com/insularity-is-not-the-way-forward-three-university-vice-chancellors-on-brexit-60660

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