Posted on 29 Nov '22

Where are the Next International Masters Students Coming From?

I'm going to start this piece with three premises.

The first is that international recruitment is a good thing for UK higher education and the country.

The second is that diversified international recruitment is an even better thing, for universities and students in particular.

The third is that future international recruitment should be prepared and planned for, in order to ensure that it can then also be provided for.

I hope we can agree on these; and also agree that using international recruitment as a simplistic brake lever to pull on "excessive" migration isn't a good solution to anything.

With that said, I thought I might use our FindAMasters data to see where international interest is building for for future study years.

I'm doing this for PGT, largely because this is the most international level of UK HE. I'd be happy to look at something similar for PGR using FindAPhD data, if readers let me know they want it.

Top of the funnel and far away

The data I'm using here is based on prospective students, searching for UK Masters-level opportunities on a specialist site with north of 750,000 monthly users.

So, it's a lot of data, but the view that data offers us is a long way off from actual recruitment. These aren't enrolments, applicants or even necessarily enquirers (yet); they're searchers. A lot of them will come to the UK to study next year. Many won't. Some probably can't.

If you do want to know what's happening further down the funnel, then I have some friends you could chat to. If you want a more detailed picture of what PGT search trends look like for the UK (including data for audience and subject preferences) then I'd recommend the State of Postgraduate Taught Search report we recently put together.

But for now, here's a glimpse at what may or may not come to pass in the future.

What these numbers are (and aren't)

FindAUniversity put this kind of data together using our 'Share of Search' methodology. This is a way of measuring trends without them being distorted by changes in the programmes we list, or the audiences discovering our sites (both of which can shift back and forth over time).

Put simply: instead of comparing absolute numbers across two periods, we compare the proportion of particular audiences doing particular things. That means we can give a trend for, say, the number of Indian students interested in Engineering Masters that's agnostic of how many Indian students or Engineering Masters we have on the site at different points. It's quite important to do that.

For this piece in particular, I'm looking at the change over time in the percentage of our audience made up of different countries. An audience is growing if it makes up a bigger proportion now than it did last year.

Which audiences are growing fastest?

Here are the 10 fastest growing international audiences searching for UK PGT programmes in the first half of 2022 (compared to the same period last year).

All of these had a sample size of at least 5,000 in 2021. This ensures that we aren't seeing large deltas produced by a small number of users.

As expected, we see the two biggest 'new' audiences, Nigeria and India, both of which definitely are driving increasing enrolments and have been doing so since the announcement of the Graduate Route visa. Setting aside drastic policy changes, neither is going away.

The rate of increase for Nigeria is way ahead of India though. There are potential challenges associated with this as universities try to manage and maintain diverse international recruitment pipelines.

We can also see that Sri Lanka outpaces both, despite accounting for a much smaller proportion of enrolments (only about 780 Sri Lankan students started a UK Masters in 2020-21). This reminds us that what we're looking at here is search, not enrolments. These students face substantial financial obstacles to overseas study, meaning a vast demand for international study can't currently translate into recruitment.

Elsewhere we can see growth for other 'emerging' audiences such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, as well as for the USA.

Which smaller audiences are also growing?

Here's what happens if we zoom out to include audiences with a sample size of only 2,000+ users in 2021. The data gets noisier as smaller changes produce bigger swings. But it's interesting:

Sri Lanka and Nigeria still lead, but we also see earlier signs of growth for countries like Kuwait, Uganda and Ghana.

This is also where we see significant growth for China (and Taiwan). This may indicate a return to international study interest, though limitations in Chinese search visibility in particular mean we have to take this data with a pinch of salt.

What's interesting is that many of these audiences actually outpace India. There is significant scope for a more diverse international recruitment pipeline if universities are able to respond.

What's next (and planning for it)

That response is key and not entirely simple. It's not for me to rehash the points around international recruitment, net migration and provision that Jim Dickinson makes (very thoroughly) on Wonkhe and I hope it's obvious that they bear thinking about alongside this.

The data here indicates what international UK PGT recruitment might look like in future. I hope that's useful.

But it also shows us that the potential rate of increase for this recruitment – from certain audiences in particular – shows no sign of letting up. There is time to spot this opportunity, but also to plan for it.

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