Blog 🏛️ University 25th August 2023

The USA vs the UK: How Do They Compare When Competing for International Student Talent?

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Zahra Onsori University Content Writer

The US and the UK are both popular study destinations for international students. 

However they remain different in the challenges they face within global higher education. 

International recruitment in the UK is high, with international applicants rising 2.4% in 2023. Now, UK universities need to find methods to diversify the quality of their applicant pool, whilst supporting students to navigate growing financial barriers as a result of Brexit, Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis. 

Across the pond, international interest in the US is also high. But as US higher-ed institutions head towards a domestic enrolment cliff, universities need to invest in diversifying their international applicant pool to mitigate low enrolment numbers. 

Whilst there’s no quick fix to the different challenges posed by these two very different markets, understanding what’s driving international student mobility is the first step to making nuanced choices for your 2024 enrolment strategies. 

Within this article, we will be comparing international student mobility to the US and UK, key stats to inform your 2024 enrolment strategy, and the potential challenges – and opportunities – ahead.

So how do the US & UK compare?

When we examined how international school students were considering various destination countries in the BridgeU platform, here’s how the two countries compare.

The US remains a preferred destination for international school students worldwide

The US continues to be a popular destination for BridgeU students considering an international higher education in every region of the world. It is the most favoured destination for international school students in Asia and the Americas.

We note that, since 2019, the percentage of BridgeU students interested in the US has risen from 22% to 33% in Europe and more than doubled in Oceania. There has also been an increase in interest from students at BridgeU international schools in Africa.

The US retains a notable competitive lead over the UK in several key source markets

We were interested to see how our US data fared alongside the most recent Open Doors report.

And we found that the U.S. has retained a competitive lead in countries that were identified as key international student recruitment markets in the 2022 Open Doors report. 

Most notably, the U.S. is overwhelmingly popular at the shortlisting stage for students in China, South Korea and Brazil.

Want to learn more about international mobility to the UK?

Download our headline infographic here

The UK is a strong competitor to the USA

We find that, in most regions of the world, the key competitor to the US over the past 5 application cycles has been the UK. A broadly similar proportion (c. 50%) of students studying at our international schools in Africa were also interested in the UK.

We also found that whilst the UK is a much more popular destination for students in Europe, its popularity has decreased from 79% to 59%.

US institutions vs global alternatives

Our analysis suggests that the majority of students shortlisting the US are also considering one or more destination countries. 

For example, for the graduating class of 2023, nearly a quarter of prospective US applicants shortlisted the United States and one other country. A further 17% shortlisted the United States and two other countries and a further 13% shortlisted institutions in the US and in three other destination countries.

So, US institutions need to be aware that they are in fierce competition with other countries for international students.

How can your university compete internationally?

So now you have an oversight of how the two countries compare when it comes to attracting the interest of international students.

But you’re probably asking yourself the question: what comes next?

Analyse what’s driving international students’ decisions

As we mentioned earlier, the USA and the UK remain the most popular destinations for international students. But what will ultimately cause a student to choose one country over the other? Here are just a few factors to consider.

Finding a place to call home

We often talk about the power of ‘destination marketing’ here at BridgeU. It’s important to universities in both countries to communicate the ways in which their campus, their locality, will provide a welcoming home for international applicants.

Our top tip?

Always tie your faculty, brand and campus back to that wider story of the region or city you’re based in. Why would a student want to spend three or four years of their life studying with you?

Enjoying our US application data?

Download our full report here to get insight into international student mobility trends of over 32,000 applicants.

Navigating different career pathways

Career outcomes remain important decision-making factors for international students choosing a higher education institution.

But career outcomes can look very different depending on what country students are applying to. For example, many international students must weigh up the choice between a US university with a more ‘general education’ major/minor degree structure, and a UK university where they are required to apply for a specific course.  

This stark choice has a knock-on effect for a student’s career pathway. In the US, a student can only enrol in a post-graduate medical school after completing their undergraduate degree. In the UK, it’s possible to complete an undergraduate medical degree and move straight into a medical career. Many international students lack visibility over these different options – and it may fall to your international admissions team to give them the full picture.

Collaborate to compete

Ever heard the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child?’ 

Now apply this to building a multinational, quality international student cohort.

The truth is, humans are collaborative by nature.

And whilst the competitive nature of international student recruitment and enrolment can make this collaborative process more difficult, at BridgeU, we believe that in order to create real change, it’s vital to work collaboratively with international schools.

Or, to put it another way, consider your international school network to be your metaphorical ‘village’.

Building trusted relationships with international schools and students is, for us, the most effective way to understand what’s driving your prospective applicants’ decision-making.

Read our latest research in full

Get the full picture of what’s driving international school students’ US application trends by downloading our latest report.

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