This article was written in January 2022, and updated in March 2022.

As we enter 2022 and move towards living with Covid-19 as the new normal, students are once again considering study abroad as a viable option. 

Student visa applications are up, with the UK Home Office granting 428,428 sponsored study visas for the 2020/2021 year (a 143% rise on the previous year, and a 55% increase on pre-Covid levels). That same academic year, the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that the UK hosted 605,130 international students. So, what exactly is causing this surge? 

Understanding the increase in international students 

A driving force behind the influx of international students in the UK is Brexit-related rule changes. Brexit has given UK universities the ability to set their own fees, many of which are now higher than the previous limit of £9,250 per year for students from EU member countries. 

Considering these higher tuition fees, it’s no surprise that the UK saw a 40% decrease in the number of EU students applying between 2020 and 2021. However, university costs are still lower than in nations like the United States – in fact, since Brexit, UK schools have experienced an approximate 50% increase in US applicants. Moreover, students who were deferred or began their courses remotely are now moving to the UK.

While Americans make up a major portion of the UK’s international students, China and India are still leading the pack. According to a 2021 UCAS report, the UK received 111,255 undergraduate applications from outside the EU – 30,845 were from China, while 11,075 came from India. And we’re seeing growth from other countries, too, with the likes of Bangladesh up a huge 410% year-on-year. 

Similarly, in the US, the significant drop in international students during the pandemic seems to have bounced back. In 2021, the country experienced an increase of 48% in international applicants (or 7,980 applications). 

Students have spent the past two years putting their lives on hold. Now, they’re ready to return to campus and live out their pre-pandemic plans. So, how can you capitalise on this momentum and ensure your institution stands out in a sea of options for prospective international students? 

1. Don’t be complacent 

Numbers may be up right now, but don’t forget that this could be the effect of Covid-related deferrals from 2020. In other words, more students are currently enrolling than usual. It’s important to differentiate yourself from competitors by welcoming students and making them feel at home. 

One of your biggest priorities should be staying in touch with and nurturing deferred students. Keep reminding them of what’s to come, provide a heads-up on deadlines and invite them to campus events. Make them feel a part of your community before they even step through the door. 

It’s also important to consider the needs of students once they arrive. What types of extracurricular activities are they looking for? Do you have the right resources available? For example, at the University of Bristol, over 100 American students have joined the school’s USA Society since its creation in 2021. Making spaces where international students feel comfortable can have a huge impact when it comes to attracting them. 

2. Focus on safety 

The UK’s successful vaccination programme means it’s open for business to international students. Meanwhile, countries such as China and Australia – previously the world’s fourth- and fifth-most popular study destinations – have fallen behind. 

With students keen to get back to campus, many are rethinking their original plans of where they might attend university. Make sure you highlight your Covid safety measures and reassure prospective students that their well-being matters to your institution. Safety is especially essential for international students who may be apprehensive about getting on a flight and living far from home. 

3. Employability is key

STEM subjects and other courses with high employability rates post-graduation are always popular amongst international students. In the US, overseas students make up the majority of full-time graduate students in many STEM subjects, such as petroleum engineering (82%) and computer/information science (72%). 

With international students serving as a key talent pool for several industries, and employers struggling to fill recruitment gaps post-pandemic, the opportunities are there for when your students graduate. And these opportunities can pay off – according to the Higher Education Policy Institute, first-year foreign students contribute over £28 billion pounds to the national economy. While some of this is due to tuition fees, a significant portion results from students using the skills they’ve learned to support local businesses. 

When promoting your school to foreign students, highlight placements, internships and work experience; it might be the difference that makes you stand out in the crowd. Employability is also a stand-out factor to parents, who are often key influencers in the decision-making of students. 

4. Get the messaging right 

Having been forced to focus on UK students for the past two years, remember that you can’t approach your prospective international students in the same way. While targeting British students on the likes of Instagram and Snapchat may work wonders, consider the realities of aspiring students in places such as India (where access to fast broadband and other digital technologies are more limited). A different approach is needed. 

First, you need to ensure your messages are relevant and targeted to your prospective student audiences. Messages should also address their individual motivations, needs and worries, while simultaneously highlighting why your institution is the best possible choice. Many foreign students are attracted to large brand names, with leading institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Bristol receiving record numbers of applications. Show students why your school is also worth their consideration. 

In addition, it’s helpful to consider cultural contexts. Make you’re ahead of any concerns students may have about attending your institution or travelling to/ living in the UK during the pandemic. 

With the number of international students on the rise, more and more people are ready to apply to their dream study destination - make sure your institution is on the list. Students won’t apply if they don’t know anything about your school. If you’d like to speak to one of our student marketing experts about how to target, engage and enrol international students, get in touch today.

Article by

Nicola Jones

Senior Marketing Manager