Overseas starters ‘down by a third’ at some English campuses

First student number survey for 2020-21 from Office for Students suggests other universities may increase recruitment   

February 10, 2021
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Overseas intakes at some large research campuses in England appear to have dropped by about a third in the first academic year after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the first full survey of student numbers indicates.

But some others appear to have substantially grown their enrolments from outside the European Union despite fears that the pandemic would stem international demand.

The data come from the Office for Students’ Higher Education Students Early Statistics (HESES) survey, which asks universities to record their likely total student numbers for the 2020-21 academic year.      

Not all students are included in the survey because of specific definitions of what is counted. For example, learners who are expected to spend more than half their year studying online from abroad are not part of the HESES student population.

Therefore, overseas students who enrol on courses but then spend most of their year studying at a distance may not be recorded in the survey. 

But comparing this year’s data with the 2019-20 survey, the figures indicate that physical full-time overseas entrants to undergraduate and taught postgraduate courses could be at least 15 per cent lower at about 20 research-intensive universities.

Estimated overseas intakes at three large Russell Group institutions – the universities of Nottingham, Leeds and Liverpool – are more than 30 per cent below their 2019-20 numbers.

Like many of the UK’s major research universities, these institutions have had substantial enrolments from China in recent years, a country that has been a focus of concerns over a drop in international flows because of the pandemic.

However, the HESES data also suggest that some Russell Group universities are expecting overseas entrants to climb this year, including a 53 per cent increase at the University of York and a 29 per cent rise at UCL.

Among other institutions, there were also wide variations in overseas intakes estimated by the survey; ranging from falls of almost half – or about 1,700 students – at De Montfort University, to non-EU entrants more than tripling at the University of Bedfordshire.

The data – which include the number of students that universities were expecting to start after the survey census date on 1 December as well as those who started before – also show that many more enrolments were expected later in the academic year compared with previous surveys.

In 2019-20, about 23,000 full-time undergraduates and postgraduate taught students from outside the EU were due to start courses after the census date, a number that is set to double to almost 50,000 this year.

There have been reports that a number of universities would seek to allow international students to have more flexibility on their start dates this year to counter concerns about the extent of the pandemic in the UK.

Returns to the HESES survey also give a picture of how new PhD starters from overseas may have changed since the pandemic.

Four major research universities were estimating such postgraduate research student numbers to fall by at least 100 this year, with the biggest drop, of 300, at Durham University. But again, a few other institutions were expecting to see substantial rises, including the universities of Oxford and Manchester.


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