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International students in the UK

Published on 24th July 2019 - Last update on 2nd August 2019

The reasons why the UK is the choice for students from around the world

Students from around the world come to the UK to study each year; studying everything from short English language courses to PhDs at the frontiers of scientific research. 

However, the largest single group of these students is made up of those taking undergraduate degrees.

The UK has a long history of providing education to international students based on the importance of English in the global economy and the high quality of the courses offered. As a result, the UK is the world’s second most popular destination for students after the US. According to official international enrolment statistics, there are more than 422,000 international students attending degree courses at university in the UK out of a total population of 1,844,545 - and the numbers are showing year on year growth.

We look at the figures – and the reasons why the UK is becoming the destination of choice for those looking for a degree and for higher qualifications.

Where are they coming from?

China, India, United States, Malaysia and Italy are the top five countries of origin of international students in the UK, making up 42% of the total international student presence.

This online tool shows the countries where foreign students are coming to the UK from.

However, there may be different reasons for the popularity of the UK for each country.

China is by far and away the top country of origin for international students in the UK. This may be partly a matter of demographics – the size of the population of China simply means that there are many students looking to study overseas, and that they will have a huge presence in any international student body.

Students from India – and to a certain extent Malaysia - may be influenced by historical connections, while students from the US, numbering almost 19,000 may enjoy the advantage of a common language.

Perhaps surprisingly, students from the EU make up just 30% of the overseas student total with under 140,000 EU students enrolled at UK universities. Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Greece are the top five EU countries sending students to the UK.

What are they studying?

Last year, the top degree course for international students in the UK was Business & Administrative studies. This was closely followed by Engineering & Technology, Social Studies, Creative Arts and Design, Biological Sciences – with Computer Science courses seeing the fastest growth in recent years.

Use this search tool to see how foreign students are attracted to different study subjects in various universities across the UK.

So why the UK?

There are several reasons for the popularity of the UK for international study. The English language is one. Being taught in English may be a challenge for non-native speakers, but English has developed an importance as the language of technology and business, and has become popular as a second language around the world. This means not only that students may have the basic language skills required, they will also be able to use the three years of their undergraduate course to perfect their skills.

Political and social stability is another important advantage. The UK is by no means crime-free, but it is a tolerant society that can offer greater personal safety than many other locations around the world. 

But of course, the most important reason of all may be the quality of the education offered by UK universities. Oxford and Cambridge are world-renowned as centres of excellence, as are many of the London colleges. Therefore the cachet of a UK degree as the basis for a career should not be underestimated.

The world of work

There are also work opportunities. Entry on a student visa does place restrictions on employment, but foreign students are allowed to work part-time - up to 20 hours per week during term-time and full-time during holiday breaks.

PhD student visas allow students to remain in the UK for four months after their course is finished, but they can apply for the Doctorate Extension Scheme, allowing them up to a year of work. Master’s students and undergraduates also have up to four months, although those in the pilot Master’s students Tier 4 may have six months.

Everyone benefits

Of course, it is possible for some students to stay and work in the UK. A major report into the effect overseas students have on the UK economy found that they make a major contribution. Non-UK graduates often work in highly qualified areas such as economics or science, or in sectors with acute shortages, such as teaching and nursing.

The study by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that, in the 10 years after graduation, the EU and overseas students who remain in the UK and economically active from a single year’s cohort will pay an estimated £3.2bn in income tax, VAT, National Insurance and other revenues to HMRC.

This is, of course, on top of the very large contribution they make to the educational system in the form of fees. 

It looks as though overseas students can always benefit from a degree gained in the UK - and that the UK may also benefit from the skills and knowledge that they are helping to create. 

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Richard Mitchell

Richard Mitchell

Content writer
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