International applicants want more support and guidance

David Kernohan reads a new report from UCAS that suggests the sector still has some way to go on giving international applicants the information they need to make good choices

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

UCAS has published a report on the experience of international students applying during 2021 – with data supplemented by a couple of surveys that extend as far as 2022 applicants.

We got the first slice of 2021 End of Cycle data from UCAS back in early December – which offered us a sector level overview of year two of the pandemic. Back in the day UCAS used to release all of the data from each cycle in one lump in the last week of January.

As you’d expect, the sector wide stuff was of interest to wonks and politicians, but most of the interest was in provider level data – who was up, who was down, that kind of stuff. In separating out the EoC report into chunks we are offered the chance to focus on each theme in turn.

So – international applications. We know the big picture already, in that EU acceptances and applications have continued to plummet as applications from the rest of the world grow. The initial release of data even allows us to look at acceptances and applications on a single country basis:

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The shift away from EU recruitment, is, of course, an artefact of geopolitical machinations. Since 2020 EU students have been charged full international fees – prior to this accepted EU domiciled applicants had access to fee loans like students from the home nations. The fees from students in the rest of the world have increasingly become an important component of the research funding system (if we assume that the “cost” of teaching a student stays constant, international students are overcharged in fees and the residual helps to support research – that usually costs more to do than it brings in), so it is the overall number of non-UK students that are arguably of more importance on a financial level.

If we look at this data as a time series we can see the remarkable growth in rest-of-world acceptances against applications. Even though providers are taking in more international students than ever before, demand has continued to grow.

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Choices and decision-making

The other section of this report focuses on a number of surveys of international students and applicants conducted during 2020 and 2021. Specifically, Red Brick asked 330+ students from eight key countries and regions in 2020 about their choice of course, provider, and destination, and YouthSight asked five hundred international applicants (in the 2021 and 2022 cycles) similar questions.

The much-vaunted “world leading” Covid-19 vaccination programme was cited by just 14 percent of applicants as a factor – 77 per cent talked about the academic reputation of the UK and the quality of university facilities in the UK (notably not the reputations of England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland individually). Just 59 per cent cited course or provider specific factors. Applicants were also asked what might deter them from UK study – 69 per cent identified high fees and living costs.

UCAS has a new service aimed at postgraduate international applicants – Myriad – and a glance at the application pathways followed by international postgraduates shows that this is an attempt to centralise applications. The majority currently apply directly to a provider (62 per cent) or via an education agent (38 per cent) – just 8 per cent of the international postgraduates surveyed currently use UCAS.

The wide variation in international postgraduate fees, and the availability of bursaries and scholarships, are the key factors in post-graduate applications. A centralised service could make it easier to directly compare courses and providers on these financial factors. University reputations and course content are important, as is the research environment for post graduates, but these are much harder to compare using data.

That pandemic thing

Despite other findings in this report, all international applications will necessarily see an impact from Covid-19 restrictions – so it is right that the final section examines this issue. There was an appetite for more and speedier information on course delivery and on-campus restrictions. Overall, half of all applicants surveyed did not feel completely ready to study abroad in 2021 or 2022 – and uncertainty around the pandemic and possible restrictions played a big part in that.

Post-qualification admissions fans will note with interest that some of these applicants also cited the uncertainty some applicants have in “waiting for universities to offer places”. The government’s PQA consultation (which now feels very much like a priority of the previous Secretary of State) did not cover international applications at all, but as other destinations don’t make international students with qualifications already wait it feels like a reasonable demand to make of the UK – whatever you may think of PQA.

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