UK unis see uptick in Chinese applicants, plunging EU student numbers

international students in the UK
China has been a leading source of international students in the UK. Source: Wang Zhao/AFP

The UK’s reputation as a bastion of higher education has meant that it attracts interest from throngs of international students from far-flung corners of the world. There were more than half a million international students in the UK in 2019-2020, said Universities UK, a collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Data from university admissions service UCAS, however, shows that UK universities are seeing a sharp decline in the number of EU international students in the UK post-Brexit while applications from Chinese students have risen. The total number of EU applicants dropped by 43% to 28,400 in 2021. Bloomberg reported that applications from China stood at 28,490, which has more than doubled since 2017. 

Universities UK head of engagement Stephanie Harris told Bloomberg that the sharp decline in applicant numbers from the EU was “disappointing” but expected, following rule changes since Brexit, which mean EU students now pay higher international fees at most British universities.

Pundits have previously projected a drop of EU students enrolling in UK universities following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. UCAS’ data shows that only Northern Ireland, which still charges local rates to EU applicants, saw a rise in applicants from the bloc in 2021, while the rest of the UK raised its fees.

international students studying in the UK

The Chinese Embassy in the UK said there were approximately 216,000 Chinese international students in the UK. Source: Paul Faith/AFP

Chinese international students in the UK hungry for an international education

China has long been a leading source of international students in the UK. Citing data from HESA, Universities UK said Chinese students make up the largest cohort with 139,130 studying in the UK in 2019-20. China is followed by 52,545 students from India and 19,940 from the USA. Italian and French students are the two largest cohorts from the EU with 13,605 and 13,430 students respectively studying in the UK in 2019-20.

Citing information from the Chinese Embassy in the UK, the Global Times reported in May that there were approximately 216,000 Chinese international students in the UK studying. Peking University School of International Studies professor Jia Guoqing told the tabloid that US visa restrictions under former US president Donald Trump had played a role in steering Chinese students to other countries such as the UK.

Renmin University of China Center for American Studies director Shi Yinhong was quoted saying that “as the relationship between China and the UK continues to decline, the UK obviously doesn’t want to cut off exchanges with China on a cultural level, as Chinese students are still a major income source for its education sector.”

While the pandemic has had a negative impact on Chinese students seeking to study abroad, Chinese students’ are still hungry for overseas education, said the Annual Report on the Development of Chinese Students Studying Abroad (2020-21) from the Center for China and Globalization in March.