Look who's over here

September 26, 1997

Over a fifth of postgraduates are overseas students.

Mark Nye looks at the attractions of studying in the United Kingdom

THE SCRAMBLE for a university place for Michaelmas entry is in full swing but the traditional image of aspiring undergraduates fresh from school is not matching up to reality. Expansion and diversification has changed the profile of the student population with mature and part-time study growing in popularity as calls for wider access to higher education and lifelong learning get stronger.

Last academic year (1996/97) there were 261,241 full-time home entrants forming 15 per cent of all students. An equally significant group in 1996/97 was the 198,400 overseas students at higher education colleges and universities in the United Kingdom. These represented 12 per cent of the student body. Although not attracting significant attention, overseas domiciled students represent a sizeable portion of the overall cohort and institutional income.

A closer look at Higher Education Statistics Agency data for 1995/96 reveals distinct trends among overseas students. Most are postgraduates. They comprise 22.3 per cent of postgraduates, 8.2 per cent of first-degree students and 9.3 per cent of "other undergraduates". Perhaps unsurprisingly, three-quarters of overseas students were on full-time courses, with this figure rising to 90 per cent among first-degree students.

The home domicile of overseas students revealed tremendous diversity, with students from more than 200 different countries. Although 43 per cent were from European Union countries, it is the 57 per cent from "other overseas" countries that draw the attention, with the 57,625 students from countries in Asia making up 3 per cent of all students.

Of these Asia-domiciled students, most are drawn from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. These three countries together send more students than any other single country outside the EU, except the United States.

Among EU domiciled students, the largest cohorts come from Greece and the Republic of Ireland, together accounting for 17 per cent of all overseas students. Statistics apart, there was a true diversity of student domicile with countries such as Kazakhstan, Nepal and Bhutan all represented.

Overseas students are concentrated in the south with over 21 per cent in Greater London and a similar percentage in the Southeast. This compares with fewer than 9 per cent in either the West Midlands or the Northwest.

Nearly a fifth of overseas students take business and administrative studies and of these more than 50 per cent at postgraduate level. Almost equally as popular was engineering and technology, chosen by 15 per cent. Some subject areas have a significant proportion of overseas students from individual countries. For example, 35 per cent of overseas students studying subjects allied to medicine were from the Republic of Ireland. Some 15.7 per cent of overseas students taking courses in both computer science and mathematical sciences were from Greece, while students from France represent 12 per cent of overseas students studying languages.

In terms of results, overseas students studying for a first degree obtain a higher percentage of first-class honours (8.1 per cent), than is gained by all first-degree students (6.9 per cent). However, a much higher percentage are awarded third-class honours, almost twice the proportion obtained by all first-degree students. Looking at the majority of qualifiers, overseas first-degree students get a significantly lower percentage of upper second class classifications, although similar numbers in the lower second class group. In looking at these 22,144 overseas first degree qualifiers for 1995/96, what is not clear, however, is the effect variables such as language difficulties may have on an overseas student's ability to achieve the higher classifications.

Approximately 20 per cent are studying in the UK as part of a special exchange programme such as Socrates, Leonardo and Erasmus via the European Union.

When looking at students who are registered at UK institutions and on exchange programmes for the year, the numbers are very small; indeed only 4,137 were reported in 1996/97. (There are positive benefits of student and staff exchanges, not just in terms of language development, but the benefits of expanding joint study and research programmes.) The numbers of home students who are studying outside the UK, and are therefore not part of the HESA student data, are unclear. Data held by Unesco for 1995 suggested that there were just over 10,000 UK-domiciled HE students studying at EU institutions, mainly in France and Germany.

Regardless of the causes, the "outflow" of UK-domiciled students to study abroad is far outweighed by those overseas students entering the UK.

Institutions are becoming increasingly diverse, not just in terms of what they offer, but also in terms of what the students are bringing with them. With 12 per cent (1996/97) of the total student population from overseas among the increasing number of "non-standard" variables among HE students, 1997/98's cohort will surely continue to reflect the broad profile of the sector.

Mark Nye is press officer at Higher Education Statistics Agency and writes in a personal capacity. All statistical data in this article is from HESA's student data 1995/96, unless otherwise specified. More detailed data can be found in HESA's Research Datapack 6, Overseas students.

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