Do international students still consider the UK as the destination of choice?


Louise Tickle, for The Guardian (May 20, 2014) examines is the UK is still the destination of choice for international students.

Tickle notes that international student numbers are dropping. "Has the UK lost its touch when it comes to recruiting overseas students? How do international students decide where to study and will they continue to land in the UK?" asks Tickle.

Currently, the UK attracts one in nine students seeking to study abroad. But it is a very competitive marketplace for universities.  Added to this is the fat that other countries are fighting hard to entice academic talent wherever they can find it.

But is the UK still an appealing place to study for international students?

Professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council director of international higher education says: "International students are a key part of the UK's understanding of the world and how the world now – and in the future, will understand the UK." She addes: "A loss of international students should be seen as a 'brain drain', and that is something the UK cannot afford on any level."

Tickle notes that there has been a steep decline in applicants from India and Pakistan to the UK.  She says: "Trends suggested there would be an increase, but instead there was around a 25% drop in students from these countries coming here last year."

It is not a surprise then, that the drop in numbers of international students studying in the UK is a worry to universities.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK says: "International recruitment figures in the UK over the last few years have not done justice either to the global success of the UK's universities, or the sector's ability to tap into this substantial growth market." "At the same time, competitor countries have seen rises in international student numbers."

"When aggressive statements on immigration are made by British politicians and a few days later hit newspapers in India, Pakistan or Malaysia, it's hardly surprising that as a prospective student you may decide to spend three years and a shedload of your cash somewhere a bit friendlier."

Dandridge adds: "The quality of our universities must be matched by the quality of welcome we provide to students."

The British Council admits that fees are a big worry for many international students.  According to a survey it carried out, high costs and poor exchange rates may be a reason why more international students are doing UK university courses outside the UK now than inside.  It seems that studying either on satellite campuses or via distance learning – or a combination of the two - is a good alternative to studying in the UK.

Tickle tells us that if you're a student deciding where to do your degree, you have more choice than ever before on where to study. David Smith, from Simon-Kucher & Partners, thinks this could lead to UK universities setting different prices for different courses.  This he believes could better reflect the value of the course you're applying for.

Other issues that worry international students include getting a job after graduation since their families have made enormous financial sacrifices so they can study overseas.

Vicki Smith, director of Study in the UK, says: "A lot of Indian students get a loan through their parents, which they'll have to pay back. Without being able to work here afterwards, that's not feasible now."

Tickle notes: "A visa to work beyond four months after graduating from a university in the UK now normally requires a job with a minimum salary of at least £20,300 a year - and it can be even higher for some sectors. A mechanical engineer must earn a minimum of £24,100, an electrical engineer £23,600 and a design engineer £24,800."

But this is problematic especially since the UK graduate job market is hardly at its healthiest.  According to data from the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education survey, the median salary of employed graduates from full-time courses six months after graduation was £20,000. This means, says Tickle, "that many overseas students will be heading home shortly after handing their graduation gown and mortarboard back to the hire shop."

However PhD graduates are allowed stay on for a year to look for work or start a business.  This has been allowed through the Doctorate Extension Scheme, introduced in April 2013.  The catch is though that their university must be willing to continue being their sponsor. According to Tickle, this "is different to USA, Canada, Australia and Germany who are extending their post-study work offer in recognition of the skills that international students can offer their job markets."

Nevertheless, according to a study by the British Council's education intelligence service, the UK is expected to retain its position as the second strongest market after the US, attracting an extra 126,000 international students.

"But with China, for example, investing heavily in its own universities and colleges, there is likely to be a fall in the numbers of Chinese prepared to spend a king's ransom to study abroad, and larger numbers wanting to apply to do their degree in one of the fastest growing economies in the world," says Tickle.


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