Posted on 19 Apr '22

From 600,000 to Where? – Opportunities & Challenges for International PGT Recruitment in the UK

Two weeks ago, I was co-presenting an 'episode' in our Postgraduate Marketing Conference Webinar series. With the UK having hit its target of 600,000 international students a decade early, myself and my colleague Jack Taylor were using a range of data sources to explore the future of international PGT recruitment. This post is intended as a summary of that discussion (which you can watch here) but it's also shaped by another, more recent, experience.

Earlier this week Jack and I were part of a small group of employers meeting current postgraduates to discuss paid placement opportunities. Every single one of the exceptionally bright, articulate and ambitious students I met was international. Together, they represented at least four different countries and a range of personal and professional experiences, yet each told a similar story during our interviews: they had reached a point in their careers where they required additional skills to progress and identified this particular MSc – an innovative STEM programme – as the route to acquiring those skills.

It struck me that, as diverse as this cohort was and as specific as this programme was, they nevertheless exemplified the overall appeal of the UK as a PGT study destination; an appeal that can draw people from around the world to acquire skills, training and opportunities they simply don't see being offered anywhere else.

These students are the reason the UK has hit that 600,000 target, but understanding their stories is, I think, the key to understanding what that achievement means and what we need to do next. I'll come back to that.

What does 600,000 international students actually look like, anyway?

First though, let's start with the big numbers. Here's what it looks like if we break down the approximately 605,130 international students studying in the UK in 20/21 (the most recent year for which we have HESA data):

Put simply, 600,000 international students looks like a lot of postgraduate taught study.

I've included a chart for 16/17 alongside 20/21 to emphasise just how much this part of the UK's international education sector has grown (from 33% to 40% of total enrolments).

Postgraduate taught study deserves a lot of credit for the UK's success as an international study destination. If you're reading this as someone who works in postgraduate marketing and recruitment, you should be proud of what you do (after all, the value of international study to the UK is clear).

And PGT will continue to be on the frontlines of UK international recruitment. Which brings me to those opportunities and challenges in my title.

International PGT is already very different

Here's the recent trend for the biggest sources of international PGT students in the UK:

As we might expect, China has dominated international recruitment over the last decade, but India is rapidly catching up.

There are various reasons for this. One is the two countries' different responses to and experiences of Covid-19. Another is a different approach to international education.

China's ambition is to grow its domestic sector to an extent that will eventually see at least some reduction in outgoing students (something that may already be happening as more Chinese graduates choose Masters study at home).

Indian students are more motivated by employment opportunities abroad, which is why the boost in Indian recruitment correlates almost exactly with the launch of the UK Graduate Route (more on that shortly).

Either way, we're now in a situation where international PGT recruitment is, at least, a two-horse race. And it's probably more.

The stage is set for even greater diversity

Let's look at those top 10 'source countries' again, and this time plot the change in enrolments between 19/20 and 20/21.

This reveals that it's actually Bangladesh, Nigeria and Pakistan that are seeing the biggest increase in enrolments at the moment (India comes in 4th and China saw a small decline, largely due to Covid).

These three countries don't account for anything like as many enrolments as India and China (yet) but they're still substantial, with almost 14,000 Nigerian students, for example, starting a UK Masters in 20/21.

Greater diversity makes it all the more important to understand the needs and intentions of different international applicants. It's no longer true that international Masters students in the UK are 'mostly Chinese' and it won't simply be true that they'll be 'mostly Indian' in the future. Indeed, of the students I spoke to this week, none were Chinese and only one was Indian.

Diversity could make international recruitment more varied and more 'equal'

For international recruitment to benefit the whole of the UK it needs to benefit the full range of UK universities and the towns, cities and local economies they sit within.

Greater diversity makes this more likely:

Here Jack and the FAU data team have mapped search behaviour on FindAMasters to the current THE World Rankings. Whatever we think of rankings as a proxy for quality, we know that students are very aware of league tables. But that doesn't mean they respond to them in the same way.

For example, whilst nearly 50% of Chinese students want to study at a 'top 100' university, growing audiences such as India and Nigeria are much more 'ranking agnostic'. Again, this happens to match my experience on campus: the university I was visiting was ranked well outside the global top 100, but the (mostly Nigerian and Pakistani) MSc students I was talking to happened to regard it as by far the best option for the skills and proficiencies they wanted to develop. Having witnessed those skills and proficiencies, I'm inclined to agree.

There's more to be said here about other differences in study preferences and motivations – and we will in upcoming posts. I'd like to end this one with a note of caution though.

We can't be complacent

As tempting as it may be to to sit back, celebrate the 600,000, let the Graduate Route do its work and watch as 'emerging' recruitment markets continue to grow. I suggest we don't.

Most obviously, we need to remember that the UK has hit that 600,000 target in the context of reduced recruitment for other popular destinations: recovery for the USA and Australia is surely a matter of 'when' not 'if'. Meanwhile Brexit is incentivising some EU countries to offer more of the shorter, anglophone, Masters programmes that used to be a UK USP.

The Graduate Route isn't a silver bullet here. The UK with a post-study-work-visa trounces the UK without a post-study-work-visa, but that's not the competition. The two years offered by the Graduate Route isn't remarkable when compared to other anglophone destinations; a £715 application fee plus a £624pa healthcare surcharge also makes it more expensive than most of them. And, as we revealed with our most recent Future Student Surveys, awareness of the GR outside the UK is surprisingly low.

A PSW scheme is also of limited use without broader support for employability. This is something the MSc I 'visited' is doing a great job of, but we know that careers support is a key issue for international students more generally. Embedding a 12 month placement into every single Masters programme probably isn't practical, but holding networking and engagement events with local employers is a more feasible way to add value and differentiate the international offer: making the most of the Graduate Route by offering programmes that help students make the most of the Graduate Route.

So, where next?

I'll end, where I began, with those MSc students. Their programme and interests are astonishingly specialised, but that very specialism is representative of the diversity the UK offers – and attracts – in aggregate.

This is what we need to be thinking of in postgraduate marketing and recruitment strategy, and in the work we at FindAUniversity can do to support it. We've seen the impact of successful international recruitment in aggregate; now we need to continue to understand the diversity it represents and ensure that PGT stays at the forefront of that success.

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