Britain targets Middle East in bid to increase international student numbers by a third

UK aims to attract 600,000 overseas undergraduates by 2030 as it loses global share of Indian, Iraqi and Saudi students

The Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed UK universities are facing up to £19 billion in losses due to the pandemic amid a drop in overseas student numbers. Getty Images
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The UK is targeting the Middle East in its bid to attract more than 600,000 international students to study in the country after a report found its market share is “vulnerable”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed UK universities are facing up to £19 billion in losses due to the pandemic amid a drop in overseas student numbers.

Latest figures show the UK lost its market share in 16 of the top 21 countries and territories that sent students overseas between 2010 and 2018.

Despite an overall drop in applications from international students, the number of Middle East applicants applying to the UK are steadily rising.

Last year the number of UAE students accepted on to undergraduate courses increased by 16 per cent compared to 2019. Students from Oman rose by 18 per cent and students from Saudi Arabia increased by 29 per cent.

International Education Champion, Sir Steve Smith, says his immediate priorities are to target students in India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria.

Last year he visited Riyadh to talk to Saudi alumni about their experiences in the UK.

“My task is clear: to champion UK education overseas,” he said. “Despite these difficult times, I am absolutely convinced that there is huge potential for us to grow our international education activity.

“The UK remains in a competitive position on the world stage and an attractive option for international students.”

The UK is aiming to increase its global market share of international students by a third, from 450,000 to 600,000 by 2030 to ensure it consolidates it position as the second-ranked destination for international students behind the US.

Nick Hillman, the director of think-tank the Higher Education Policy Institute, believes the UK’s ties with the Middle East are something to build on as potential undergraduates see Britain as an attractive option.

“Early in the Covid-19 crisis people feared the numbers of students would fall off the cliff but that’s not happened,” he told The National.

“There has been a drop in EU numbers but others have remained healthy. Every crisis has shown that getting a degree is a good thing to do because after the crisis you are much more likely to get a job.

“In the UK there have been policy changes to allow international degree students to work afterwards, this has been very appealing.

“The UK has deep links with the Middle East and one would hope that those looking to study abroad will have the UK near the top of their list.”

UK is ranked second behind the US for overseas students

A recent report has found its position “vulnerable”, with third-place Australia increasing its intake by 16 per cent and Germany increasing its numbers by 20.4 per cent.

Universities UK International (UUKi), which represents UK higher education institutions globally, has commissioned a report looking to target Saudi Arabia and a number of other nations in a bid to boost the UK's future cohort.

It examines why the UK is underperforming in selected countries and how it can become a more attractive study destination for international students.

“International student recruitment is becoming increasingly competitive and although the UK was still ranked the second most popular study destination globally in 2018, its position has become vulnerable. The UK only has a small lead on Australia, which ranked third,” it says.

“The UK provides an attractive environment for international students and its offer is broadly comparable to other study destinations. However, the UK is comparatively more expensive in terms of tuition fees, student visa fees and health surcharge.”

Number of Saudi students choosing the UK has dropped 10%

Since 2010, the UK has lost 30 per cent of students from Nigeria, 18 per cent from Pakistan, 14 per cent from India, 10 per cent from Saudi Arabia and 6 per cent from Iran.

Last summer the UK launched its Graduate Route to attract more international students.

It will allow eligible students to stay in the UK to work, or look for work, for two years (three years if studying at PhD level) after they have completed a degree.

The UUKI’s report examined how the UK could attract more students from Saudi Arabia, with the UK only taking one sixth of the US’ market share of students between 2010 and 2018.

Interviews with Saudi students revealed the UK was attractive due to its geographical proximity and its flight connections, but the US has a “more favourable” exchange rate. US celebrity influences have also had an impact, it says.

“One interviewee explained that in addition to covering the tuition fees, government scholarships pay a monthly lump sum in Saudi Riyal – irrespective of the destination,” the report says.

“The exchange rate is more favourable in the US, which gives the student a greater disposable income. Another reason for the US’ greater attractiveness is a clear perception of what life is like in the US – in part because US celebrities and influencers are much more visible on social media and display ‘a lifestyle that seems more enjoyable than in Europe’.”

UK hopes to attract more overseas students.

Another student said the UK has appeared unwelcoming and they did not realise its diverse society.

“I didn’t know before I went that Islam is widespread in the UK; there are lots of people from everywhere,” the student said.

“It would be helpful to know this before we come, this would make our decision easier!”

It has led the UUKi to recommend a social media campaign highlighting the UK’s diversity.

“The interviews demonstrate that, rather than policy barriers, there is a lack of awareness of the UK’s offer among Saudi national students,” it has concluded.

“The UK could increase its attractiveness through a targeted communication strategy emphasising the UK’s welcoming and multicultural population, regions and cities and demonstrating universities’ unique selling points.”

UCAS launches app to help international students

In a report examining the impact of Covid-19 on applications published on Thursday by the UK’s admissions service UCAS, Where next? The experience of international students connecting to UK higher education, it revealed that almost nine out of ten (88 per cent) international students interviewed see the UK as a positive place to study.

However, half of the students said they did not feel completely ready to start their course ahead of the current academic year, revealing a gap in knowledge and support during the crucial transition to studying in the UK.

UCAS has launched a free app, called Myriad, to help international students explore education opportunities in the UK.

“Students from around the world continue to hold the UK’s universities and colleges in incredibly high regard,” UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant told The National.

“From our world class academic offering to the opportunities to live and learn as part of a diverse society, the UK is clearly a destination of choice for students looking to study internationally. However, they are saying they need better support as they research their futures.

Sir Steve Smith, the UK government's international education champion, is looking to attract more students from the Middle East. University of Exeter / Twitter

“As part of UCAS’ trusted and independent role, we want to provide the valued information students need to make truly informed decisions as we continue to emerge from the pandemic.

"Myriad by UCAS builds on our success of being the largest, single route for international students coming to the UK by providing accessible information on the topics that really matter when deciding to study in another country.”

Despite the continuing fallout from the pandemic, Sir Steve says the UK's institutions will remain world-class.

"The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly impacted how education across the world is delivered and experienced," he said.

"Many education providers temporarily closed or moved towards online delivery. Travel restrictions have impacted international students’ access to education, and potential reductions in exports risk significant financial implications for the UK’s education institutions.

"But the government has been clear, our world-leading universities, which thrive on being global institutions, will always be open to international students."

Updated: January 13, 2022, 1:36 PM