Blog 🏛️ University 14th July 2022

The 3 Factors Governing International Students' UK University Decision Making in 2022

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Zahra Onsori University Content Writer
What are the hidden factors that govern an international student’s UK university decision-making? We spoke to international school counsellors to find out more. 

In many ways, international student admissions and enrolment in the UK has a bright future. 

In the last 12 months, the UK met its 2030 international student recruitment target nearly ten years early. And international student enrolments for the next five years are only projected to grow.

For international schools worldwide, it’s certainly true that the UK remains an attractive destination for many students. International students are still highly likely to consider and apply to a top-ranked UK university.

Some of our counsellors also tell us that the simplicity of the UCAS application process removes much of the red tape and complexity that they will often find when applying to other countries.

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But (and there is a but), our most recent analysis of our international students’ UK university preferences also revealed some of the ways that the UK can expect to receive increasingly fierce competition from other destination countries.

As part of our latest report, we’ve interviewed international school counsellors from across our network spanning 138 countries.

Our interviews are an interesting glimpse into the hidden factors that govern international school students’ UK university decision-making.

The UK is still a popular destination, but students are increasingly considering other countries

Earlier this year, the Advanced HE/HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey reported  that international students were more satisfied with their UK undergraduate courses  than their counterparts who had home fee status. 

But while this may be true of international students already studying at a UK university, our recent interviews with some of our counsellors reminded us that, as students begin the process of applying to university in the UK, they’re increasingly weighing up the value of a UK degree alongside the degree programmes offered by other countries. 

For example, at the International School of the Stockholm Region in Sweden, IBDP Coordinator and guidance counsellor Phil Spires told us that the UK was increasingly competing with the Netherlands and Sweden itself for his students’ attention. 

Phil also noted that Brexit is also still having an effect on students’ perceptions of the UK as a study destination, with some students worried that it has negatively affected their ability to access a UK higher education. 

There were similarities at the British International School of Ho Chi Minh City. Here, outgoing guidance counsellor Simon Finnigan noted that, in some cases the UK was a fallback option for a number of his students, especially when compared to destinations like South Korea and Hong Kong. 

Counterintuitively, this isn’t necessarily bad news for the UK. Simon also told us that the simplicity of the UCAS applications process means that his students were highly likely to apply to at least one UK university. 

In short, for many international schools, the UK is often a leading choice for students – but there’s no guarantee it will be the first choice. 

Curriculum, citizenship and local factors continue to have a bearing on decision making

UK universities cannot afford to underestimate the impact that cultural, economic and local academic factors play in students’ decision making.

For example, at Colegio Positivo in Brazil,  students’ dual EU citizenship meant that European countries were more of a pull than the UK, with students favouring destinations like Spain and Portugal. 

Likewise, in markets like Vietnam, counsellors told us that the fact international students have been attending secondary schools in a big city like Ho Chi Minh meant that they were more likely to attend UK universities in a city like London or Manchester. 

This of course doesn’t mean that campus universities are less likely to attract potential undergraduate degrees in the coming years. 

It simply means that it’s important for these universities to position themselves to international students in a way that promotes the specific benefits of their campus. 

Contrast this with the American School of Milan, where the specific, localised nature of the IB curriculum means that the UK remains a popular destination for Italian international students. 

The UK university system is particularly attractive to students at ASM because of the way the school chooses to deliver the IB curriculum. Students must choose particular ‘tracks’ and specialise in the IB subjects they choose to study (this is designed to align the IB more closely with the Italian education system)

Counsellor’s insights on the effects of Brexit were decidedly mixed

In Milan, Brexit was no longer an influencing factor for her students, with COVID making them keen to explore the benefits of an international higher education once more. 

However, for some of our other counsellors (particularly in South America and Europe), Brexit was still a factor when students weighed up the UK alongside other international destinations. 

Some counsellors have told us that the UK’s status as a non-EU country does raise concerns from students about the perceived value of a UK education when tuition fees are now lower in other European countries. 

Brexit may also have had an effect on how international students choose universities across the four constituent countries of the UK. 

For example, our recent report indicated that a higher proportion of EU students are shortlisting Scottish universities in the BridgeU platform when compared to English universities. 

How UK universities can become better aligned with students’ decision-making in 2023

Our interviews with counsellors serve as a reminder that a competitive international recruitment strategy will also involve understanding the cultural and local contexts that guide international students’ decision-making. 

For example, students in Italy were more likely to choose a UK university because it aligned with how the IB curriculum was delivered at the American School of Milan.

Contrast this with students at Colegio Positivo in Brazil, who was less familiar with delivering careers guidance pertaining to the UK higher education system. 

Or consider the British School of Ho Chi Minh City, where Simon Finnigan noted that his students were more likely to choose a city-based institution, on account of the fact that his students were more accustomed to living in a bustling, global city. 

These insights only prove the extent to which local factors are so crucial in shaping international students’ wider decision-making. UK international admissions teams must be alive to these local factors, and consider how they can adapt their recruitment accordingly. 

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