The number of international students studying in the UK reached an all-time high in 2021/22, with the UK hosting a total of 679,970 international students. Of these students, 120,140 were from the EU and 559,825 were non-EU students. Chinese students comprised 22.3% of the total international student population.

Table 1: Total enrolments figures for the top 10 sending countries to the UK 2017/18-2021-22

RankSending Country2017/182021/22ChangeDifference
2.India20,335126,535 522%106,200
5.United States19,48522,99018%3,505
6.Hong Kong16,62017,6306.08%1,010

Decreasing number of applications

While China continues to be the top sending market for the UK (Table 1), and the number of 2023 undergraduate applications received by UCAS from Chinese students remains higher than pre-pandemic levels (21,250 applications in 2020), UCAS data shows that the number of applications from Chinese students fell for the first time in over a decade. In 2023, applications from Chinese students dropped 4% to 27,710 from 28,930 in 2022. In contrast, the total number of international students applying via UCAS to study undergraduate courses in the UK increased by 3%, driven by increased applications from students from Nigeria, India, and the US.

Home Office data shows that in 2022, the number of Chinese students granted a sponsored study visa (102,842) also decreased by 16,389 (-14%) compared to 2019.

Shifting preferences

While it is unclear whether these decreases in UCAS and visa approvals are likely to continue, there is growing evidence that the Chinese outbound student market is shifting slightly in terms of preferences. A Navitas agent survey, for example, highlights that while interest in the UK remains very high among Chinese students, some may be exploring study options closer to home, with agents saying that Singapore is a destination attracting strong interest.

The Navitas findings align with those of a survey of guidance counsellors and high school students conducted by the China Institute of College Admission Counseling which highlighted an increasing trend of Chinese students applying to study in more than one destination as well as heightened interest in studying in Asia.

Education analyst Angela Lehmann explains to Times Higher Education that this increased interest in study destinations closer to home will likely be a lingering effect of Covid-19 given Chinese safety consciousness: “There’s a sense of familiarity and security in being close to home, culturally as well as geographically”.

There is also evidence that cost of study (fees and cost of living) concerns are also influencing preferences. A Navitas report highlights that the cost of study is the second most important concern for students from China and this is likely to increase the attractiveness of Australia and Canada as study destinations for those students from China who are more price sensitive.

Source: Navitas

Navitas Market Insights Lead Janhvi Doshi explains:

“Aligned to our broader understanding of the market, the U.K. and U.S. come out stronger than Canada and Australia on quality of education, and Canada and Australia dominate on opportunities for migration. This suggests that Greater China might continue to bifurcate as a market – students who care most about ranking will go to the U.K. or U.S., while students who are less focused on prestige and/or are price sensitive may select Canada or Australia.”

New report to explore future of UK student housing

Wider changes to the composition and preferences of the UK inbound market are likely to have a significant effect on student housing investment, development and operations in the coming decade. Global Student Living, in partnership with CUBO, will be releasing a report exploring the changing shape of UK student accommodation at the CUBO Summer Conference in July. The report will profile the different preferences and experiences of inbound students, and explore projections on how the changes will shape the student housing sector in the UK over the next decade.