Posted on 22 Aug '23

AreWeInternational? — What do Prospective PG Students Think of the UK Now?

  • Visa changes continue to reduce interest in UK PG study amongst certain international audiences
  • Prospective international students now rate the UK as the least welcoming of several popular postgraduate destinations
  • However, awareness of UUKi's WeAreInternational campaign is increasing and correlates with more positive views of UK study

It's been a strange 12 months or so for international postgraduate recruitment, as we've gone from exceeding the 600,000 student target to the announcement of major immigration changes (with a big impact on audiences).

We now know a little more about what the changes will actually involve and which courses will be affected. In a nutshell:

  • As of 17 July 2023, students are no longer able to switch to skilled worker visas before completing their course
  • Students commencing study after January 2024 will no longer be able to bring dependents on most Masters-level courses; students commencing in September 2023 can still bring dependents
  • Exceptions exist for students on 'research-based higher degrees' in which the original research component exceeds the taught component (this includes all MPhil and Phd programmes, as well as an MRes where the majority of credits are awarded for research work)

There's more info in UKCISA's (always excellent) resources, whilst our own content team have updated FindAMasters with the key details for prospective postgraduates. You can also read the government's official Statement of Changes In Immigration rules. If you like that sort of thing.

So, what can we do about all this? Well, FAU are monitoring the impact at the 'top of the funnel', using Pulse and Share of Search to understand how prospective postgraduate audiences are being affected.

We've also partnered with Universities UK International to support the relaunched #WeAreInternational campaign: helping to position the UK as a welcoming and supportive environment for international study, despite these policy changes.

Myself and UUKi's Andy Howells (Assistant Director, UUKi) will have plenty to say about PG audience developments and WAI, respectively, at our upcoming Postgraduate Marketing Conference (yep, places still available if you move quickly). For now, here's a quick preview of where things stand:

The audience impact

Assuming you're subscribed to our Pulse updates (you are, right?) you'll have noticed a shift in prospective PGT audiences over the past few months:

The drop in Share of Search from Africa correlates with the 'trailing' of the visa changes in late 2022 and early 2023 and has been pretty consistent since the announcement in May. As of July, African audiences make up only 7% of the people searching for a UK Masters – down from 20% a year ago. This makes sense as these audiences are the most likely to bring dependents; Nigeria in particular is also facing well-documented FX issues.

India (and neighbours) have also been dropping, though July clearly bucked the trend. It could be that some of these audiences were reassured by the clarification of the changes (though this came late in the month).

In a nutshell, India is still holding up for 2024/25, but Nigeria is a fraction of what it was (and that fraction is less than half).

These shifts in Share of Search explain some of what we're seeing in our Pulse surveys:

We've continued asking our Pulse audience how much impact different visa changes would have on their UK study intentions, including things that have been announced (like the restriction of dependent visas) and some that are hypothetical (like cutting the graduate route or raising all international fees).

The trend for dependent restrictions feels odd, but it makes sense against the SoS data: less students are concerned about this because the search audience is now made up of people who are less-concerned (if you'll allow me to sacrifice grammar to symmetry there).

It's the opposite effect for changes to the graduate route: the searching audience is made up of those (predominantly Indian) students for whom this is a key issue. And they probably have less confidence that further changes aren't forthcoming. I'm not entirely sure what's driving that June spike, btw – it could be that the May announcement (dependents and in-study switching) spooked people.

So, AreWeInternational?

We've seen the impact on search and study intentions, but what do prospective postgraduates actually think of the UK? Well:

This chart takes five popular postgraduate study destinations and compares the % of prospective international students who rate them as 'welcoming' (based on a Likert scale). The UK is dead last. Only 63% of prospective international students looking for a UK Masters expect the UK to be a welcoming place to study. That one's worth revolving in your mind for a moment.

It's why the re-launch of UUKi's #WeAreInternational campaign is so important: emphasising and celebrating the positive impact of international students in the UK and the positive attitude of UK universities towards international students.

FAU are one of a number of partners supporting this campaign. Uniquely, we've also been measuring the impact on student audiences – after all, WAI isn't intended to be an echo chamber; we need to know that these messages are reaching prospective international students. It looks like they are.

Awareness of the #WAI campaign has already increased substantially across several of the largest audiences for UK Masters study:

A third of prospective students in Ghana, Pakistan and Bangladesh are aware of the campaign, whereas it's around a quarter for Nigeria and India. All have seen an increase of 5-8 percentage points since we began tracking in June.

The message isn't just getting through though; it's also having an impact. International audiences who've heard of the campaign are 11% more likely to rate the UK as a welcoming study destination.

So, despite obvious challenges for international PGT, as a sector we have a message that works; we just need to carry on reaching more people with it.

That's why we're giving pride of place to #WeAreInternational at our Postgraduate Marketing Conference in a couple of weeks, with a keynote from Universities UK International explaining what the campaign involves, how universities can get involved and the materials available to support them.

There's plenty more in the programme too, of course – including yours truly going through even more PG audience data. Hopefully see you in London!

You may also like...

What makes the UK such a great postgraduate study destination?

Our content writer, Taru, shares her own story of travelling to the UK to succeed as an international Masters student (and graduate).

Making the most of our postgraduate marketing conference

We hope you'll join us in London in Septemer to hear the latest PG audience insight (and much more). Here's what we're hoping you'll get out of the event.