UK universities least optimistic on international recruitment

14 March 2023 4 min. read
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International recruitment strategies are becoming increasing important to universities, as they prepare for an era of ‘hyper-competition’. A new study from Nous Group and Navitas suggests that British universities see themselves at a disadvantage in this regard, with one-in-ten British institutions ‘very pessimistic’ about the future of the international education sector in the country.

The marketisation of higher education in the UK is a process which has been unfolding gradually for 25 years, now. With UK universities increasingly dependent on fees for their income, many realised that courting international students would be a way to further maximise revenues – as students from overseas could be charged more for their studies, while receiving the same service as domestic students.

This prompted a scramble among UK universities to boost international recruitment. However, this increased financial dependence on migration placed many institutions in a precarious situation, having failed to anticipate the global upheaval that would impact the sector over the last seven years.


In the years after the 2016 Brexit vote, the flow of new students from overseas faced potentially disruption from new visa requirements and other immigration controls, something which 97% of institutions previously said could be damaging – and 46%, highly damaging. This was exacerbated by the Covid-19 lockdowns which began in 2020 – something which continues to impact markets UK universities had previously been most reliant on for international recruitment. For example, while applications from China to UK institutions had quadrupled between 2014 and 2021, 20222 saw them decrease for the first time – falling by 4.2%.

As universities struggle to find cost savings in the short term, many are also adapting their international recruitment strategies to cope with these changes in the long-term. A study by Nous Group and education provider Navitas has shown that more than 90% of universities across the UK, Australia and Canada viewed internationalisation as a ‘high priority’ for their institution – with 71% of those polled saying growing applications from countries which were ‘under represented’ on their campuses would be an important part of that strategy.

Matt Durnin, a Principal at Nous, noted, “Internationalisation strategies have become more complex in recent years. The pandemic created an immediate need for universities to diversify their approach, to investigate new ways of engaging with students and deliver learning across closed borders. Today internationalisation includes affiliations and partnerships, transnational education and offshore brand campuses, however, international student recruitment is still the most important area of focus for university leaders due to its pivotal role in revenue generation.”


Success in the international market may be more complicated than simply diversifying strategies, though. A majority of respondents across all three markets told the researchers that they anticipated a period of ‘hyper-competition’. British institutions seem most pessimistic about this. Australian universities were most likely to believe this era of competition would be markedly more aggressive than previously, but only the UK market saw no respondents at all suggest that levels of competition would be the same as before.

Looking ahead, British universities also seem less optimistic about the future of their national sector in the face of this competition, than other markets. While 59% of institutions in Britain said they were ‘optimistic’ about the outlook for the national education sector, around one-fifth said they were pessimistic – and roughly one-in-ten added they were ‘very pessimistic’. This possibly reflects UK universities being aware that the changing nature of the country’s immigration regime could challenge the prospects of their sector. In comparison, respondents from Canada, or Australia, said they were ‘very pessimistic’ about their national markets.

Conversely, British universities were the more upbeat about the prospects of their own institution. A 79% majority said they were optimistic about the future of their university (fewer than Australia’s 82%), while 17% were ‘very optimistic’. However, this may be reflective of an attitude prevalent among UK businesses at large – that however bad the broader economy may look, “it won’t directly impact us”.