Latest data on international students: Comparing US and UK enrollment trends

International student market in entering a phase of hyper-competition and turbulence. With the changing political contexts, the top two destinations for international students–US and UK–are experiencing challenges in maintaining their attractiveness.

At the institutional level, universities and colleges with the global brand recognition and rankings will face limited challenges while the majority of the institutions will struggle to recruit international students and meet their enrollment goals.

I have analyzed the data from HESA, UK and IIE, US for 2015-16 enrollment. Here are some of the inferences based on the comparative analysis of the international student mobility data:

  • American higher education institutions are more dependent on China and India as compared to British institutions
  • US and UK have witnessed contrasting trends with at least four places of origin—India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Hong Kong
  • The growth rate for Chinese students in the US far outstrips than in the UK
  • Ten times as many Indian students are studying in the US as in the UK


data comparing US UK China India international student enrollment recruitment trends

British universities rely heavily on international students for meeting its enrollment goals. The biggest challenge for British universities is that its top two source countries—China and India—are not driving the enrollment growth. These two countries account for over one-third of the total international student enrollment in the country. For the last four years, the overall enrollment for China has grown at a much slower pace (compared to the US), while India has been experiencing a consistent decline.

While the UK has an advantage over the US in attracting international students from Nigeria, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, it cannot underestimate the Indian market because of its scale and growth potential. UK faces stiff competition for Indian students against the US, which experienced a dramatic increase in the number of Indian students primarily in Engineering and Computer Science fields.

With Brexit, the post-graduation employment and immigration opportunities will become more restricted. It will likely hurt the enrollment for the master’s programs for non-EU international students and undergraduate programs for EU students.

The US higher education is also facing a tougher environment for attracting international students for fall 2017. Three of the four top source countries—China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—are witnessing a slower rate of growth. India was the only market among the top four countries, which witnessed a double-digit growth rate.

Indian students are value-seekers and hence they are concentrated in master’s programs, which offer a more likely work experience through three-year long STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT). However, with the recent demonetization of Indian currency and a perception of stricter immigration policies, Indian numbers are likely to be affected at the master’s programs.

In a globally competitive market of international student recruitment, the outcome of the American Presidential election seems like a saving grace for the UK universities. To some extent, the unfavorable perception of Brexit among international students has been “trumped” by the uncertainty of the American immigration policies and its implications on work opportunities.

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Dr. Rahul Choudaha