For UK higher education to become truly global, personalisation is key

Published 31/05/2022

A global pandemic hasn’t stood in the way of students across the world continuing to follow their dream of studying in another country. Interest in studying in the UK continues to rise, and by 2026 we forecast a 46% increase, to reach 208,500 international undergraduate applicants.

Growing our collective understanding of what influences international students to take the leap to study far away needs to be high on the agenda. That’s why UCAS and the College Board have just published insight into the views of nearly 1,300 students considering applications to multiple countries.

For some, the decision is made early, with 10% thinking about higher education abroad before they are 11. This chimes with previous UCAS research, finding a third of UK students’ HE aspirations are shaped at primary school.

Though 83% of UK applicants chose their degree subject before the university, the reverse is true for prospective international students. They place greater importance on the quality (83%) and reputation (75%) of the university or college relative to the quality (70%) and reputation (58%) of the subject area.

It also follows that when asked to rank the importance of 12 different factors, the standout was the reputation of universities or colleges in their chosen countries. Half of respondents ranked this number one.

It’s therefore unsurprising that 55% of international students enter higher tariff providers, relative to 28% of the UK cohort. This trend is even stronger for students from the Asia-Pacific region; namely, Singapore (85%), Malaysia (74%), Hong Kong (69%) and China (78%). Meanwhile, Irish applicants buck the trend and are most likely to be placed at lower tariff providers – their proximity to the UK may see Irish students behave in a similar way to domestic students.

“The most common motivation for studying abroad is to experience life in a different country”

The most common motivation for studying abroad is to experience life in a different country (chosen by 75% of respondents), suggesting that applicants are not solely focussed on the pursuit of academic excellence, but a well-rounded student experience. This finding is mirrored in results from a previous UCAS survey, which found that international applicants to UK HE are 10 percentage points more likely to be interested in meeting new people than home applicants, and 7 points more likely to be interested in experiencing ‘university life’ and having fun.

For UCAS, this highlights the benefits of personalised information and advice to international applicants through the UCAS Hub and our new Myriad by UCAS platform, which allows student to research and search for postgraduate courses, whilst also getting matched to funding, and finding jobs and accommodation all in one place.

The attractiveness of the UK as a destination for international students has been bolstered by the Graduate route with students five times more likely to rank landing a job in their destination country, relative to their country of domicile, as their top priority. Similarly, and visa permitting, individuals are four times more likely to be planning on staying in their country of study than not.

For students from Nigeria, the most important factor to study abroad is to gain skills to support them in their career (chosen by 80%), and they are more likely to be interested in employment after graduation (52%); meanwhile, for students from India, the most important factor is that HE options are of ‘better quality’ (75% of respondents from India).

There are some aspects of student support that vary from region to region, with students from China and Hong Kong having a stronger requirement for more detailed instructions on the application process (63% and 58% of students respectively), and students from Nigeria feeling that additional communications from their chosen universities or colleges about their processes and experiences would benefit them (54%).

This means that UCAS is calling for the next iteration of the UK’s International Education Strategy to endorse a nation-specific approach to promoting UK HE. It is by growing nation-level intelligence as to the different values, motivations and interests held within key markets e.g. the priority countries identified within the IES update that the HE sector will diversify its appeal across a greater number of markets.

Whilst personalisation has long-since dominated the narrative around informing student choice within the domestic context, it’s time to apply the same lens to international student recruitment.

About the author: This is a sponsored post from Clare Marchant, who has been Chief Executive of UCAS since 2017. Clare is passionate about delivering reform and value, and particularly, the benefit education can bring to both an individual’s overall life chances, and creating a more productive society. She is privileged to lead UCAS during this time of considerable change in the education sector and have the opportunity to transform its services to students, universities, colleges, and student advisers.

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