New Year, new-ish data: Can two-year-old statistics help our strategies for the present?

by Matt Durnin
All regions

As we enter the crucial months of the 2018/2019 recruitment cycle, data from HESA and the Home Office are just now giving us a snapshot of what happened to UK international student recruitment in the past two years. While these figures may often seem hopelessly out of date, many of the trends behind the numbers are still relevant to our work in the coming months.

Let’s start by looking at HESA’s headline enrolment figures for 2016/17, which were published late last week.

Overall UK international enrolments in 2016/17 showed little change. Non-EU enrolments fell by 1 per cent year on year, the second consecutive year of slight decline, but EU enrolments climbed by 5.8 per cent. The latter may have been a knee-jerk reaction to Brexit, as students rushed to secure places, fearing that the doors would soon slam shut.


Broken down by market, the data give cause for a mix optimism and concern.

The good news first: Enrolments from China continued to rise even as growth in the number of students going abroad slowed – the number of students leaving China to study abroad climbed by only 4 per cent in 2016, down from 14 per cent growth the previous year, according to Ministry of Education figures. The UK education brand remains strong in China and, overall, our institutions appear to be thriving in a more competitive market.

Looking at other key recruitment markets, American enrolments in the UK continued a gradual expansion, up by 2.7 per cent year on year, slightly faster than the increase recorded in the previous academic cycle. We won’t know the details until HESA releases the full data in the coming weeks, but undergraduates have been the primary driver of growth from the US market in recent years (up by 23 per cent over the previous five years of reported data), while postgraduate numbers have held steady.

Indian enrolments receded slightly year on year, but new enrolments expanded by 6.9 per cent, echoing other signals that UK recruitment is returning to growth after the protracted decline that followed changes in UK visa policy.

Outside of these substantial silver linings, the picture was less positive. Malaysia and Nigeria numbers fell sharply, while Saudi Arabia and Singapore also posted notable declines. The falling numbers from Malaysia are particularly worrying as new enrolments plunged by 16.9 per cent. Low oil prices and slashed scholarship budgets (the latter often linked to the former) go a long way to explaining the declines.


We can also view trends a bit closer to the present by looking the Q3 study visa issuance data from the Home Office (released in late November 2017), which give us an idea as to how recruitment fared for the academic year currently in progress. (Visa issuances and subsequent enrolments don’t align perfectly, but they do usually move in the same direction.)

The visa figures suggest that overall UK recruitment in China, the major South Asian markets, Kuwait and Turkey was strongly buoyant.

Meanwhile, study visa issuances in Indonesia took a big hit, down by 25 per cent year on year, due to greater restrictions to government-funded scholarships. We believe, however, that the demand from self-funded students is strong and growing, particularly at the undergraduate level.

Based on visa issuances, we suspect that enrolments from Malaysia and Nigeria continued to slide in 2017/18, though the severity of the decline won’t be clear until HESA data is published next January.


What does this mean for the present?

The “new” data may need to be dusted off before use, but many of the market conditions driving the key trends in 2016 and 2017 will persist throughout the current recruitment cycle. Here are my main takeaways:

  • The China market will remain strong, even as outbound study growth slows and competition intensifies. China accounted for 43 per cent of the UK study visas issued globally in first three quarters of 2017. If institutions can grow or hold their recruitment numbers here, they’ll be insulated against shocks elsewhere in the portfolio.
    There’s a longer-term conversation to be had about hedging strategies against the China market’s eventual stagnation and decline, but in the short term, getting it right in the middle kingdom should be a top priority. Make hay while the sun shines, as they say.
  • Indian student numbers in the UK are rebounding and, given the country’s economic growth prospects, it seems like a good time to ramp up activities. Also, while I tend to doubt the severity of the “Trump effect” in many markets, it may have real bite on the sub-continent, particularly in light of the Trump administration’s recent sabre-rattling over immigration.
  • Student numbers from Pakistan and Bangladesh also appear to be recovering, but the opportunities in those markets largely depend on institutions’ ability (and willingness) to manage the risk of visa denials. There are plenty of quality students to be had if universities are willing to invest in sustained engagement.
  • Oil will remain relatively cheap, which will continue to squeeze scholarships and consumer wallets in oil-dependent economies. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia may be exceptions to the scholarship pinch. Both are redoubling efforts to shift away from oil-dependency. Saudi officials also appear to now be taking a more favourable view of UK higher education, in contrast to their strong preference for the US in recent years.
  • Finally, there’s the EU question. The Brexit vote initially seemed to help to spur on EU applications; the UCAS figures from the autumn 2017 deadline suggest that tide is shifting the opposite direction, with undergraduate applications from EU students falling slightly. But it’s too soon to tell if enrolments will suffer prior to the UK’s March 2019 exit from the EU, and the outlook beyond that is hazy at best.
    Without clarity on the outcome of Brexit negotiations it would be unwise to abandon EU recruitment prematurely. Regardless of how the divorce with the EU resolves, UK universities will remain closely linked to the rest of Europe. Our actions in the coming year – particularly our efforts to recruit students – should reflect that intention.

I hope this stimulates your thinking on what’s to come this year and wish you all a happy and productive start to 2018!

About the Author

Matt Durnin
Head of Research and Consultancy, East Asia
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East Asia

Specialising in the economics of education, Matt works with a team of analysts to provide external clients with the data, analysis, and insights required to succeed in Asia’s dynamic education sector.

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