Dramatic surge in UAE student applications to study in UK

Thousands have applied to study this year, with popular subjects being computer science and engineering

Helal Almheiri at his family's farm in Al Samha, Abu Dhabi. He chose to attend university in the UK. Victor Besa / The National
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Record numbers of UAE residents are applying to UK universities, with latest figures showing more than 8,000 are studying in British institutions – almost twice as many as five years ago.

There were 8,085 UAE students studying on PhD, postgraduate and undergraduate courses in the UK in 2022 – up from 4,715 in 2017, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals.

The true figure is expected to be far higher as the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) has already received 3,690 applications from UAE students for undergraduate courses starting in September this year.

The numbers come even as UK universities warn of an overall drop in international applications and the EU offers more relaxed visas for GCC students.

Undergraduate applications to Ucas from the UAE have risen 63 per cent from 2,260 in January 2020. Last year it received 3,570 applications.

Other Middle East countries have also seen an increase, with undergraduate applications from students in Turkey rising to 2,600 this year compared to 1,890 last year,

Applications from Saudi Arabia rose to 1,880 this year compared to 1,720 last year and Jordan saw an increase of 580 compared to 520.

HESA said the universities of Leeds, London and Manchester are the most popular with UAE students. University College London has the country’s oldest Emirati student society.

The Russell Group, which represents the UK’s leading universities, told The National it has seen a 108 per cent rise in UAE applicants this year.

Helal Almheiri, 22, moved to the UK from Abu Dhabi when he was 17 to study international management at the University of Bath.

“I chose the UK for my studies due to its world-class education system, diverse cultural environment and strong business connections, which are vital for my career aspirations in international management,” he told The National.

“The University of Bath stood out for its excellent academic reputation, supportive community and strong industry links.

“My experience in the UK has been incredibly rewarding. The University of Bath provided a stimulating academic environment and numerous opportunities for personal and professional growth.

"I joined the European Affairs Society and was elected vice president, which allowed me to engage deeply in international issues and develop leadership skills.

“To students from the UAE considering studying in the UK, I would highly recommend it. The exposure to different cultures and the high-quality education you will receive is invaluable. Additionally, being involved in societies and extracurricular activities can greatly enhance your university experience and provide a well-rounded education.”

Michael Addison, academic director at the International Foundation Group, helps UAE students apply to universities across the globe and says the UK is very popular.

“Generally, Emirati students love coming to London,” he told The National.

“Many get generous government sponsorship, and the UAE Embassy looks after their students very well while they are in the UK.

“I think they find it easy to integrate in the UK where there is a big Emirati community, plenty of restaurants which they like and good shops.

“It is also quicker to come to the UK than other countries like Australia, the States and Canada.”

Mr Addison has found their favourite courses tend to be in the fields of computer science and engineering.

Universities UK International told The National that students from the UAE make an “important contribution” to the country.

Emiratis studying abroad - in pictures

“International students make huge contributions to university campuses, towns and cities across the UK, as we highlight in our ongoing #WeAreInternational campaign,” a spokesperson said.

“They are attracted to study in the UK for a range of reasons; from the world-class education on offer to the diverse and welcoming communities ready to receive them. In turn, international students bring a range of social, cultural and economic benefits to these communities.

“Students from the UAE make an important contribution to study in the UK, with thousands bringing their skills and experiences to UK universities. It is crucial that the UK maintains an open, welcoming offer to international students from around the world.”

Despite the rising figures, there are have been fears international student numbers could be cut due to the government’s measures to curb immigration.

In March, Home Secretary James Cleverly asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review whether the graduate visa route – which allows overseas graduates to stay in the UK for two or three years after graduation – is “undermining the integrity and quality” of the higher education system.

He said he wanted to ensure that the graduate route was “not being abused” and that some of the demand for study visas “is not being driven more by a desire for immigration rather than education”.

It followed the government's move in January to stop international students being able to use their visas to bring family members to the UK and it is predicted this will result in a drop of 120,000 applications.

However, on Tuesday, the committee's report ruled that it had found no evidence of “significant abuse” of the graduate visa route and that it should remain in place.

It concluded the graduate route is helping universities to make up for financial losses on domestic students and helps then fund research through income from international tuition fees.

The committee raised concerns about “potential exploitation” of international students due to poor practices by some agents recruiting people overseas who may be “mis-selling UK higher education”, but it stressed this is a separate issue from abuse of the graduate route.

There has been a “large increase” in the number of graduate visas granted since the route’s introduction in July 2021, the report found.

In 2023, 114,000 were granted for main applicants, with a further 30,000 for dependants, according to the committee.

It has recommended that the government should establish a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents, and universities should be required to publish data on their use of agents to “help protect the integrity” of the UK higher education system.

Committee chairman Prof Brian Bell said: “Our review recommends the graduate route should remain as it is, and is not undermining the quality and integrity of the UK’s higher education system.

“The graduate route is a key part of the offer that we make to international students to come and study in the UK.

“The fees that these students pay helps universities to cover the losses they make in teaching British students and doing research.

“Without those students, many universities would need to shrink and less research would be done.”

Russell Group chief executive Dr Tim Bradshaw told The National the graduate route plays a crucial role in ensuring the UK is an attractive destination for global talent.

“The MAC’s thoughtful review is crystal clear: the graduate route should be retained in full, finding no evidence of widespread abuse,” he said.

“International students bring huge value to our university communities, offering global perspectives and important skills, and creating diverse learning environments. As the MAC recognises, they are also critical to the financial sustainability of our world-leading universities.”

The government is now reviewing the findings.

Updated: May 15, 2024, 10:34 AM