The United Kingdom is the global leader in high-quality undergraduate education for international students. According to a recent study by the UK Higher Education International Unit, international undergraduate students rate the UK number one for student satisfaction ahead of the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and New Zealand. The UK, the study shows, "excels in teaching and learning".
The study by the UK Higher Education International Unit at Universities UK, also notes however, that the UK is lagging behind the US and Canada which are enjoying faster growth in market share of international undergraduate students than the UK.
The research, 'International Undergraduate Students: The UK’s competitive advantage', examines the changes that have occurred between 2008 and 2014. It shows a 91% international undergraduate student satisfaction with UK higher education. According to the study, satisfaction has increased in every area of the learning experience.
The study found that 85% of international undergraduates who study in the UK would recommend the UK experience to others. This is the highest recommendation rate of all of the major English-speaking destinations.
The international student satisfaction for UK universities is obvious across 75 of 84 measures of the study. According to the study, the UK has the highest satisfaction ratings compared to its competitors for all the dimensions of the student experience: overall satisfaction, learning, living, support and arrival experience.
The report notes: “Notably it excels against its competitors in teaching and learning, with the highest rating for 15 of 23 measures of the teaching and learning experience, and has increased satisfaction since 2007 in every single area of the learning experience.”
Interestingly, the UK also has higher satisfaction with the cost of living than its main rivals.
Jo Johnson, Universities and Science Minister, said the results show that international students “can expect a truly world leading standard of teaching and learning” when they come to the UK. He added: “International students are very welcome in the UK and play an important role in making our education system one of the best in the world. Our higher education reforms are putting students at the heart of the system, making sure that all students are getting a high-quality education wherever they are from."
Vivienne Stern, Director of the UK Higher Education International Unit said the report’s findings endorse the work that universities in the UK are doing to continuously improve the student experience. However, she believes that there is no room for complacency because other countries are enjoying faster growth and increasing their efforts to attract international students.
This is despite the fact that according to the report, the number of non-EU international undergraduate students in the UK has increased by 46% since 2007.
Stern added: “The UK must jointly capitalise on its obvious strengths in order to drive sustained growth for this critical component of the UK's higher education system and its broader economy."
Will Archer, the report's author, CEO of i-graduate, added: "A key factor driving continued growth is the demonstrated ability of UK universities to deliver on the promise of a world-class undergraduate experience. To have achieved increases across all measures of the learning experience, while sustaining such high ratings for student services across a period of growth, deserves recognition."
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, Professor Sir Steve Smith, said: "Reputation matters, but what matters most is how our international students rate us. This survey gives a definitive answer to that question." He added: “The rich diversity of excellence among UK universities means that students can find the right course for them and, most importantly, have a world-leading experience during their time here."
Despite the positive findings for the UK, however, the report noted that the UK's market share of international graduates has stagnated over the period 2008-14. It warned also that more international students are weighing up several destinations when choosing where to study and there is “no doubt” that the sector is being “negatively impacted by current visa policies”.
The report notes: “Rising competition from the ‘sleeping giant’ of the international sector, the US, is proving significant, as is the offer from Canadian universities.” “The significant fall experienced in recent years in Australian international undergraduate enrolments illustrates the potential fragility of this market.”
In 2007-14, according to the report, due to increased growth in international undergraduate student enrolments in North America, all other competitors except the UK went backwards in real terms. The US share rose by 52%, Canada’s by 20.2%, and the UK’s by 0.5%, whereas Germany, New Zealand and Australia experienced falls in their share of 18-22%.
The report points out that the number of international undergraduate students in the UK, as a proportion of total international student numbers, is lower than most of its rivals, with 50% of students studying at undergraduate level. Only the US is broadly similar (51%).
There is one area showing lower levels of satisfaction with studying in the UK however, and these are financial indicators including “earning money” which is down seven percentage points to 68%.
Nevertheless, in three of the four countries in the UK (excluding Scotland) undergraduates complete a degree in three years rather than four as in the US, Canada and Australia. This means that students pay tuition fees for fewer years and can access the jobs market more quickly.
These findings are based on international student experience data derived from i-graduate's International Student Barometer. These findings are supported by statistics on international student recruitment and enrolment in the UK, as well as high-level analysis of other major destinations, government policies on recruitment, support and post-study employment.
The student landscape: a better understanding
The report was drawn up with the intention of contributing a better understanding of the international student landscape as well as making recommendations that would help UK policymakers and universities drive up growth of international student recruitment.
To that end, it noted that education agents featured in the decision-making of at least 26% of international undegraduates in the UK. This figure is lower than among the UK’s English-speaking rivals.
Given that students in the UK typically report satisfaction with agents’ services of 90%+, the report recommends that the UK should do more to engage with this group positively and notes: “The UK’s attractiveness to education agents as a study destination has trended downwards since 2010, counter to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”
The report notes that of the 130,000 international undergraduate students enrolled in the UK in 2013-14, nearly three out of four were from Asia, 11% from Africa, 9% from the Middle East, 9% from North America and 1% from Latin America.
The report draws on the feedback received from 365,754 international students studying outside their home country.
The UK Higher Education International Unit is commissioned to systematically examine the UK’s market position with respect to international student recruitment and the international student experience.