There are now more US students than Indian students starting courses at UK universities, while total undergraduate numbers across all nationalities dropped by 2 per cent in 2014-15, and part-time numbers continued to fall.
The figures are revealed in data published today by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which also show that the number of first-degree graduates awarded a first or upper-second class degree rose from 70 per cent to 72 per cent in 2014-15.
“The total number of HE enrolments at UK HEPs [higher education providers] stood at 2,266,075 in 2014-15, a decrease of 1 per cent, 33,280 in overall numbers, from 2013-14. This overall decrease is mainly due to a decline in undergraduate enrolments which fell by 2 per cent and part-time enrolments which decreased by 6 per cent between 2013-14 and 2014-15”, Hesa says.
The continuing decline in part-time students will be of concern, although the fall is not as steep as in previous years.
And the slight decline in undergraduate enrolments may raise concerns about the potential impact of the £9,000 fee system.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, Universities UK president and University of Kent vice-chancellor, said: “The decline in part-time student numbers remains a serious cause for concern.”
She added: “The Chancellor's Spending Review statement in November announced that student maintenance loans are to be extended to part-time higher education students in England from 2018-19. We hope the changes will help address some of these falls in recent years, but more specific action may be needed.”
However, universities are likely to be most alarmed by the figures on non-EU students.
Although the total number of non-EU enrolments across all levels of study rose by 1 per cent in 2014-15, from 310,195 to 312,010, the number of first-year enrolments fell by 3 per cent.
The number starting courses declined from 179,390 to 174,305.
The number of Indian first-year enrolments at UK universities fell by 10 per cent, from 11,270 to 10,125.
That meant that the US overtook India on the list of countries that are the biggest sources of UK university first-year enrolments from non-EU countries, edging into second place behind China.
While the number of first-years coming from China was static, there were also significant falls in the numbers coming from the fourth and fifth biggest sending countries on the list (Nigeria, down 8 per cent, and Malaysia, down 6 per cent).
Gordon Slaven, the British Council’s director of higher education, commented: “These latest figures show that international [non-EU] students have never been so crucial to UK higher education. A year on year decrease of British students (by two per cent) and EU students (by one per cent) means that the one per cent growth of students coming from around the world is essential for the sustainability and continued excellence of our universities."
He added: “However, given that international students make such a vital academic, cultural and economic contribution to the UK, it is alarming that the UK’s one per cent growth is so small, when compared to our competitors. In the same period, [2013/14 – 2014/15] the USA saw ten per cent growth, Australia had eight per cent, Canada 11 per cent and Germany saw a seven per cent year on year growth of new international students.
“There is now a clear trend of the UK’s global market share declining compared with other countries, and we need to take urgent steps to address, and stem this decline. Other countries are currently gaining at the UK’s expense and the government and sector must work together to ensure that our world class higher education system remains attractive and accessible to every ambitious young person in the world.”
Dame Julia said of the drop in overseas student numbers: “We could be doing better than this.”
She added: “It is essential that the UK government presents a welcoming climate for genuine international students and academics and ensures that visa and immigration rules are proportionate and communicated appropriately. We would also like to see enhanced opportunities for qualified international (non-EU) graduates to stay in the UK for a period to gain professional experience and contribute to the economy. These measures will be essential to meet the government’s own target of £30 billion education exports.”