English universities report fewer overseas master’s enrolments

Early data suggest number of international students starting taught postgraduate courses is down 6 per cent, but some individual campuses hit much harder

April 9, 2024
A yellow suitcase bound up with tape
Source: iStock/Prostock-Studio

A number of large English universities have recorded significant falls in international recruitment in the latest academic year, early forecasts suggest, particularly among postgraduate taught students affected by recent policy announcements.

The Office for Students’ (OfS) Higher Education Students Early Statistics (Heses) survey asks universities to record their likely total student numbers for the academic year, providing the sector with an early indication of the number of students in 2023-24.

The Heses data, which represent only students at English providers in the approved (fee cap) category of the OfS register, will be used to calculate funding allocations for 2024-25.

Analysis shows there were around 340,990 new overseas entrants recorded in the survey – down by 3 per cent when compared with the 2022-23 release.

While the number of international undergraduates increased slightly, the number taking postgraduate taught courses fell by 6 per cent.

In this category, there were some very large falls in recruitment, notably at Staffordshire University (down 75 per cent), the University for the Creative Arts (54 per cent), the University of Portsmouth (51 per cent) and the University of Leicester (45 per cent).

Biggest drops in international postgraduate taught enrolments

Provider (with 1,000+ students)Overseas entrants, PGT (Masters' loan), 2023-24Overseas entrants, PGT (Masters' loan), 2022-23Percentage change

Source: OfS

Though the figures will not directly show the effects of the recent ban on dependants, which prevented students on taught master’s courses from bringing family members into the UK from 1 January, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said they could be linked to the “noise” around the ban, as well as fears of more changes around post-study work rights.

He said the “fascinating” data confirmed that the operating environment was getting tougher for universities and that there was large volatility at an institutional level.

“The statistics help to explain why so many people are worried about the future sustainability of individual institutions – which is also shown in the wave of recent vice-chancellor resignations.

“The mix of negative messaging and tougher rules is clearly having the impact the Home Office seems to want but, as a country, we are likely to regret making the UK a less welcoming environment.”

Overseas students on postgraduate research courses are still able to bring in dependants, and the Heses data show their numbers increased by 10 per cent year-on-year.

The survey is completed mid-year, allowing funding calculations to use more recent figures, but this means there are some elements of forecasting to it for those students starting their studies after the census date of 1 December.

The Heses data also show some significant declines in postgraduate taught students at Russell Group universities.

International postgraduate taught numbers fell by 11 per cent at the University of Exeter, by 10 per cent at the University of York and by 9 per cent at UCL.

Analysis of the latest immigration figures by the research consultancy Education Insight suggests that reductions in the number of postgraduate students at some highly ranked universities are related to declines in the number of Chinese students.

Janet Ilieva, founder of Education Insight, said some institutions, which might have been influenced by the OfS’ warning about over-relying on China, were experiencing a “double whammy” because they were now also suffering falls in demand from India, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

“We’re seeing a shift away from China, replacing it with south Asia – but the uncertainty over post-study work is now hitting them, meaning they are being hit on both fronts,” she said.

With the latest visa statistics showing a smaller dip in overseas entrants than the Heses data, Dr Ilieva said, this reflected mounting concerns among universities that growing numbers of students who had paid their deposits and had visas were not going on to enrol. 


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles