Will International PGT Audiences Look Elsewhere?
It's not quite time for a 2023 PG retrospective but – barring any last-minute surprises such as the abolition of UKRI, the imposition of mimimum entry requirements for AHSS Masters degrees or, I don't know, something crazy like fixing the UK postgraduate loan – it's fairly obvious that any such recap would focus on the seismic changes to UK student visas. And this post is no different.
We've looked at the impact of the dependent ban and immigration fee increases on study intentions and perceptions and we've recently explored the impact on the shape of PGT recruitment for January 2024.
There's one obvious question left to ask though, as per my somewhat provocative title: will students just, you know, look for a PG qualification somewhere else?
Sadly, the answer is not 'no'.
Interest in the UK nearly halved in October
I first spotted this whilst running data for our November Pulse Report. The proportion of Indian students using FindAMasters to search for UK Masters programmes dropped by over 80% year on year in October: from 59% in 2022 to just 11% in 2023.
That's despite Indian visitor numbers to FindAMasters being broadly comparable across both periods (this is the point of FindAUniversity's Share of Search methodology: it reveals market trends that web analytics alone would obscure or distort). The other thing Share of Search can do is show you where the trade-off, i.e. whose gain is the UK's loss.
So here's what Share of Search looks like, across popular study destinations, for all international audiences in October 2023, compared to 2022:
Interest in the UK has nearly halved in percentage-point terms, interest in the USA has nearly doubled and popular EU destinations are also seeing a boost. The UK's loss is its competitors' gain.
Note that, like most western websites, we have a relatively small number of Chinese users who are likely to be less affected by the visa changes (indeed, UK Share of Search for the Chinese audience we do have has only dropped from 56% to 52%).
But other big PGT audiences are seeing a substantial swing to the USA and Europe:
The above chart compares 2022 and 2023 Share of Search five popular PGT destinations have for three of the (previously) most substantial audiences for UK study.
So, 9% of Indian students searched for USA Masters in 2022, up to 23% in 2023. Meanwhile, the UK % has dropped from 59 to 11.
This is in Pulse too
The charts above are based on our Share of Search data – what prospective students do on FindAUniversity platforms. But, uniquely, we can also combine this with our Pulse survey to look at what those audiences say.
And here the trend is even more pronounced:
What's behind this?
Visa changes. Visa changes are behind this.
Here's an update of the graph I put together last time we looked at international PGT impact:
This is from our Pulse survey, comparing the % of international PGT responses who say that restricting dependents will make them much less likely to study in the UK to the % who say that reducing the Graduate Route would do the same.
Concern about the Graduate Route dropped and flatlined when it became clear that this change wasn't being made. But concern over dependents rose as the September intake 'deadline' approached (the changes apply from January).
It then dropped in October, which makes a lot of sense when compared with our Share of Search data. The people searching for a UK Masters now are the remainder who aren't (as) concerned about this change. It seems that quite a few of the others are looking elsewhere.
This also explains the much more robust interest in September intakes that we saw last month as international audiences looked to 'beat the door'.
And, of course, the cost of a student visa increased by £127 on 4 October, with an increase of £411 to the Immigration Healthcare Surcharge due by the end of January 2024. That's an additional cost of £538 per student on a one-year Masters, with a further increase of £107 to the cost of the Graduate Route visa should that student decide to stay for post-study work (and thereby pay another 1-2 years of the increased IHS).
I am, of course, assuming you're a UK PG marketer or recruiter. If you represent an American or European university then you definitely shouldn't panic. But I don't think the picture is completely bleak for the UK either.
Firstly, these audiences – and percentages – are still very big. The UK still has a third of Share of Search in October, which is more than twice as much as the next competitor (it's just that it previously had over half).
Secondly, China isn't well-represented here and looks more stable (as above).
Thirdly, the cause for this is known and, theoretically addressable. Yes, it doesn't seem likely that the current government will roll back its visa changes and we can't bank on a new administration doing so either. But fixing UK international student policy (again...) still feels more likely than addressing the somewhat broken economics of domestic PG.
In the meantime...
As you hopefully know, FAU have been working with UUKi to help share excellent content from the relaunched WeAreInternational campaign. But we've also been tracking its impact. And the campaign is having an impact.
First of all, more an more prospective international students are being made aware of WAI:
That's despite the negativity and concern surrounding the policy changes, which is testament to the work the sector has been doing to get the message out.
More importantly, we see that this message does improve perceptions of the UK:
Over half (52%) of international audiences who say they're aware of WAI in our September-October Pulse survey feel the UK is a 'very welcoming' place to study. For audiences who aren't aware of WAI, that drops to 35% – a 17 percentage point difference.
Is feeling the UK is more welcoming enough to overcome the practical barriers of being forced to leave dependent children or pay significantly higher immigration costs? On its own, no. But it does matter whether audiences fundamentally see UK universities as places that want them to study and succeed, despite those barriers, and will still want them to do so when and if those barriers are removed.
You may also like...
January is still a popular entry point, but we've seen a much more robust pipeline for September 2023.
A summary of the UK visa changes, along with some early indicators of their impact on students' intentions.