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Statistics from HESA show an increase in the UK’s international student enrolments in 2020/21 despite the pandemic, but major variation between different countries.

by Kevin Prest
Higher Education Institutions, Further Education Institutions, Schools & Independent Colleges, ELT Providers

On Tuesday the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) announced student enrolment data for 2020/21 – the first full academic year after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This data paints a very different picture to visa statistics, as it includes not only students who physically studied in the UK but also those who stayed in their home countries for all or part of the year because of the pandemic. However, it does not include students enrolled on distance learning or transnational education programmes that were not originally designed to involve physically studying in the UK.

In contrast to a 21 per cent decline in student visa issuances in 2020, the number of new international HE students actually increased by 3.6 per cent from non-EU countries and 4.0 per cent from the EU. Looking at the total number of enrolments, the number of enrolled non-EU international students was up 10.6 per cent over 2019/20, while EU students increased by 3.5 per cent. The gap between visa issuances and student enrolments shows that a substantial number of students were studying UK HE programmes online for at least the first part of the academic year.

Trends in the UK compare favourably to those in the US. According to data from the US Institute of International Education (IIE) the country saw a 46 per cent decline in new international student enrolments in 2020/21 compared to the previous academic year, or a 17 per cent drop in total enrolments (excluding participants in the OPT post-study work programme). However, US figures refer only to students physically studying in the United States which means that they are not directly comparable to this year’s HESA student record. Meanwhile Australia reported a decline of 23 per cent in new international enrolments in the 2020 calendar year, followed by a drop of the same scale in January to October 2021. We may have expected an even larger contraction, given that Australia’s borders were closed to international students from March 2020 to December 2021. However, Australia also managed to recruit a substantial number of new international students who studied online from their home country over the pandemic period.

As with the visa statistics released almost a year ago, enrolment data shows very different trends for different countries. Looking at the top 10 non-EU countries in terms of new students, some countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa showed very strong growth – the number of new students from India was up 27 per cent, the number of new Pakistani students was up 81 per cent, and Nigeria saw growth of 89 per cent. Meanwhile some countries in East Asia saw the opposite trend – Thailand saw a 55 per cent drop, Malaysia was down 30 per cent, and China – the largest single international market for UK higher education – had a 5 per cent reduction in new international students. Newly recruited students from Canada and the US also saw noticeable drops.

The general pattern between countries is similar to that seen in visa figures, but comparing the two sets of data shows that almost all countries performed much better in terms of newly enrolled students than visa issuances. For example, the number of Chinese students physically coming to the UK fell by more than 30 per cent (according to visa data) while the decline in newly enrolled Chinese students was 5 per cent. This shows that a substantial number of students studied a UK degree course from abroad.

Note: Student visa issuances refer to student visas issued to main applicants (excluding dependents) outside the UK. This figure includes students enrolled at other levels of study, such as A-level, as well as the HE students that would be included in the HESA data.

One major driver for growth among non-EU students is the newly opened Graduate Route, which allows students to stay to work in the UK for up to two years after completing a UK HE programme. The impact of these visa changes outweighed the effect of the pandemic in developing countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast students in East Asia appeared to be much more affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and less influenced by visa reforms.

Trends in students from these countries studying in the UK contrast sharply with those in other major study destinations. For example, the number of Indian HE students in the US fell by 16 per cent in 2020/21 compared to the previous academic year (excluding OPT participants), while newly recruited Indian students in Australia fell by 45 per cent in 2020 and a further 46 per cent in the first 10 months of 2021. And the number of Chinese HE students in the US fell by 15% in 2020/21, while newly recruited Chinese students in Australia fell by 14% in 2020 and a further 9% in the first 10 months of 2021 – far steeper than the fall in recruitment from China experienced by the UK. One commonality across the UK, US and Australia was a large contraction in recruitment of students from Malaysia throughout the pandemic.

In the EU there was also a big divide between countries. In general, Eastern European countries showed strong growth in the final year of entry before EU students lost access to lower tuition fees and subsidised student loans. Among the top 10 non-EU countries, Romania and Poland saw increases of 24 and 25 per cent respectively. Meanwhile the number of new students from France and Italy was virtually flat and Germany saw a 7 per cent decline. It is likely that students from the less wealthy eastern parts of the EU were more strongly impacted by these funding changes and so were more likely to take advantage of the “last chance” to study in the UK at the discounted rate – a theory supported by more recent data from UCAS which shows a much sharper drop in the 2021 entry cycle for these countries compared to Western Europe.

Note: EU students did not need a visa in 2020, so visa data is not available

Comparing data by level of study there was a slight decline in new international non-EU undergraduates, compared with an increase in postgraduate students. While HESA’s initial data release does not provide a detailed breakdown of level of study by individual country, this trend is likely related to the non-EU countries that saw stronger growth being mainly postgraduate markets while some of the major senders of undergraduate students saw a decline in enrolments. EU students showed the opposite trend, with stronger growth in undergraduate than postgraduate study

Looking specifically at first degree programmes (bachelor’s degrees and integrated bachelors-plus-masters programmes such as MEng courses), non-EU students saw a 2 per cent drop in first year student enrolments. This contrasts with a 2 per cent increase in acceptances reported by UCAS for 2020 entry cycle, suggesting a rise in the number of students who did not enter their programme despite accepting a place through UCAS. There was a similar trend among EU students, whose 8 per cent increase was substantially smaller than the 17 per cent growth in acceptances through UCAS.

The main reason for this difference was likely the flexible deposit policies introduced by universities due to the pandemic. Another cause of the gap may be a decline in students articulating to a UK university as part of a transnational education course.

Finally, HESA also reported initial headline data on students studying UK HE programmes abroad as part of distance learning or transnational education (TNE) programmes. As noted above, data on TNE does not include students enrolled on a traditional UK course who were unable to come to the UK due to the pandemic, but only covers those on courses designed as distance learning or TNE.

Both EU and non-EU regions saw strong increases in TNE / distance learning student numbers, with total enrolments up 8 per cent year-on-year in the EU and 14 per cent in overseas countries outside the EU. The increase was not limited to a single form of study, with in-person and distance learning provision both seeing strong increases. The rise in TNE is likely also related to the pandemic, with travel difficulties and lockdowns raising the attractiveness of studying a UK degree in a student’s home country.

While the overall figures on total enrolments are positive, with online enrolments making up for a decline in onshore mobility, a closer look into the differences between countries suggests that the headline figures do not tell the whole story. Strong growth in some countries as a result of changes to the UK’s post-study visa policy masks large declines in other parts of the world where the pandemic was a more prominent concern. The UK remaining open to international students while its major competitors were either partially or fully closed was also likely an important factor in the UK’s relatively strong performance. Overall, the newly released data is a very positive sign and shows that the Covid-19 pandemic did not have the devastating effect many predicted on international student enrolments at UK universities in 2020/21.


The British Council will be able to provide more detailed analysis in a few weeks when more granular data on international enrolment in UK HE is made available to us.  We will also be updating our online HE data mining tool for UK HEIs from early March when the final HESA data is released


About the Author

Kevin Prest
Education Insights Global Team - Senior Analyst

Kevin leads on the team’s data analysis, providing UK education institutions and other stakeholders with insights and evidence-based recommendations to help them understand overseas markets, recruit overseas students and develop international partnerships. He joined the British Council in 2014 and is based in Beijing but works on projects across the globe.

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