The future of the UK’s international student community

Higher Education Sep 9, 2020

A growing number of students from all over the world are choosing to attend UK universities, which are recognised globally for their excellence. Combine that quality with a culturally diverse environment, skilled academic staff and the chance to live in an iconic city, and you see why hundreds of thousands of international students want to study in the UK.  

But COVID-19 is causing great uncertainty for UK higher education. In particular, international students are asking whether a UK education remains a viable option, given travel bans, social distancing and the prospect of a second wave. They may choose to stay away.

With 1 in 5 UK students hailing from overseas, a crisis looms. The financial implications for UK universities are huge. But how worried should universities be, and what can they do to fight back?

A growing market

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there are currently just under 500,000 international students studying in the UK, a 10% rise from 2017/18. This surge was timely for institutions under growing financial pressure.

Some nationalities are enticed by the UK more than others. Notably, the UK student community included 120,000 Chinese students, a figure that has risen by 35% over the last 5 years, drawn by famous English landmarks and cities, high-quality teaching and a desire to see the world.  

Unsurprisingly, the most popular universities for international students were those in the UK’s most iconic cities. London leads the way followed by Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Oxford. The most popular subjects for international students in the UK include business studies, medicine, as well as creative arts.

The pull of these headline subjects and the world’s most famous cities meant that the number of international students was on the rise. Then COVID-19 struck.

The impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 has put the brakes on the influx of international students who have been forced to pause or cancel their plans to study abroad. UK universities haven’t stopped teaching. But they have taken measures to ensure their courses are COVID-compliant. For example, The University of Cambridge has cancelled all face-to-face lectures for the coming academic year.

International students will wonder whether virtual teaching is quite so appealing. They pay premium rates for the privilege, and it will be hard for a university to justify charging tens of thousands of pounds for online-only courses. This problem isn’t unique to the UK, but the UK’s reliance upon income from international students could spell disaster.

Along with capital, international students also bring a wealth of culture and diversity. Some stay in the UK beyond university and the UK benefits from their expertise and research in academic and student life. UK universities would be much poorer without an international mix.

How universities must respond

The current situation remains uncertain, as we don’t know what state the world will be in 3, 6 or 12 months from now. But this uncertainty is stunting our ability to plan for the future.

With the only certainty being uncertainty, universities have to adapt how they’re teaching and engaging with international students. In the short term, this means preparing for the coming academic year with the view that international students will not be attending in person, so there is going to be a shortfall in income when it comes to accommodation.

However, universities must respond by making their online teaching as engaging as possible, embracing the challenge that COVID-19 presents in order to create new experiences for students. It’s never been more important for the product universities sell to be perfectly polished.

Universities must also ensure that their administration (from application to interview to student management to alumni engagement) is robust and impactful. As we’ve talked about on the blog, a large part of this is being able to seamlessly switch to online, using video where in-person isn’t possible, making sure that students are treated the same, if not better, than before.

A brighter future

We all hope that the impact of COVID-19 is felt for as short a time as possible. Be it via immunity or a vaccine, life should return to a semblance of normality. Fingers crossed that when that time comes, international students will also return to UK universities.

Encouragingly, there seems to be a drive in the UK higher education sector to not let the past 6 months damage their reputations. A paper from the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) outlined 15 steps the government and international education sector should take to make the UK “the world’s most attractive destination for international students”. It’s an attitude and pragmatic action like this that will stand UK universities in good stead going forward.

This period shouldn’t damage UK universities for the long term – their excellent reputations will remain long after COVID-19 moves on. It is a case of these institutions managing this uncertain period. By rising to the challenge with impactful online teaching and efficient online administration, universities can ride out this storm and once again thrive. Whilst that may seem a little far off at this point, it’s an idea that all universities must strive towards making a reality.

If you’d like to explore how video can help you to navigate the Coronavirus crisis and improve the student experience over the long run, then please do get in touch.

Alternatively, if your organisation would like to arrange a demo of the Inzite platform, then please book a call below:


Darren Hill

Darren is the founder and CEO of Inzite. Darren founded Inzite in 2014 with a vision to improve online personal interaction for businesses and independent advisors.