Number of international students applying for university courses in UK rises

The number of international students applying for a place on a higher education course in the UK has risen this year, Ucas figures show.

A total of 115,730 overseas students applied for undergraduate places in UK institutions by the January deadline – up 0.7% on the same point last year, according to data by the university admissions service.

The number of overseas applicants from non-EU countries has reached a record high, with 95,840 applying to study on UK higher education courses.

The number of applicants from China has increased by 3.3% to 28,620 since January last year, while applicants from Turkey have risen by 37%.

But the number of applicants from Nigeria has fallen by 45.7% to 1,590, while applicants from India have dropped by 3.9% to 8,770, the Ucas figures show.

The data comes after Universities UK (UUK) announced this month that it would review international student admissions processes following allegations of “bad practice” by agents recruiting overseas students for UK universities.

A recent Sunday Times article alleged that international students – who pay higher tuition fees – were being offered places with lower grades at British universities than domestic applicants.

Graduate stock
A total of 115,730 overseas students had applied for undergraduate places in UK institutions by the January deadline (Chris Radburn/PA)

Overall, the total number of applicants – of all ages and domiciles – to undergraduate courses in the UK has fallen this year by 0.3% to 594,940.

Across the UK, there has been a 1% decline in applicants from England and Wales, a 2% decline in applicants from Northern Ireland and a 2% rise in applicants from Scotland, the university admissions service said.

But the data shows the number of 18-year-olds in the UK applying to undergraduate courses has risen – up 0.7% on the same point last year.

A total of 316,850 18-year-olds from the UK have applied to courses this year – and Ucas said the figure was the “second highest on record”.

This puts the application rate for UK 18-year-olds at 41.3%, down from 41.5% in 2023.

The number of applicants – of all ages and domiciles – to nursing courses in the UK has fallen by 7.4% to 31,100 compared to January last year, the data shows.

Applications to nursing have decreased across all specialisms, but particularly adult nursing and mental health nursing – and the fall in demand is being driven by a reduction in the number of UK mature applicants to courses, Ucas said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, said: “No-one who uses the NHS thinks we have enough medical staff, so the declines in interest in nursing are worrying.

“There is a big gap in the rhetoric we hear from policymakers on all sides of the political spectrum about developing the NHS workforce and the actual trends in demand to enter nursing.

“It is incumbent on policymakers to engage with this data and explain how they will get UK higher education back on track.”

On the international student numbers, he added: “The fall in demand from Nigeria is regrettable but unsurprising, given the signals coming from Westminster and changes like the increase in the NHS levy as well as the economic challenges in Nigeria.

“We are now seeing the unwinding of the increases in Nigerian – and Indian – students that had been promoted by some of Boris Johnson’s changes as Prime Minister.”

Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of University Alliance, said: “The marginal increase in international student applications demonstrates the continued draw of UK higher education.

“The benefits are mutual: international students drive over £40 billion in education export income for the UK every year, approximately £560 per citizen.

“They also contribute additional subsidies to access the NHS and support the financial sustainability of our universities, enabling universities to open up more opportunities for home students without increasing the contribution of taxpayers or UK students.”

She added: “The continued decline in applications for subjects like teaching, nursing and midwifery spell trouble for the future of our public sector.

“A concerted effort to reverse these trends will be required from government, the NHS and universities if we are to meet the ambitions set out in the NHS long-term workforce plan.”

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of UUK, said: “The latest Ucas figures demonstrate that university continues to be a hugely attractive choice, with an increase in UK 18-year-olds applying.”

She added: “However, we also know that the NHS needs many more people to go into healthcare careers to make the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan a success, so there must be a continued focus on recruiting students into medicine, nursing and other health-aligned subjects.”

Dr Jo Saxton, chief executive of Ucas, said: “While today’s data shows a decline in applications from mature students, which will be more keenly felt in some subjects such as nursing, we know that these applicants are more likely to apply later in the cycle.

“For any students who missed the deadline or are still undecided on their next steps into higher education, they can still apply until June 30, and afterwards directly to Clearing, and plenty of choice still remains.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We are fully focused on striking the right balance between acting decisively to tackle net migration, which we are clear is far too high, and attracting the brightest students to study at our universities.

“That is why we have brought in some of the toughest measures in years, including tackling the substantial rise in students bringing dependants to the UK. This aims to ensure students are studying on high-quality courses which benefit the UK economy.”