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Go Back to the List February 02, 2023
Universities urged to diversify overseas target markets

Universities need to work harder at diversifying target markets for international students, says a new study which highlights a marked difference between where potential globetrotting students are looking to study in the future and where universities have been concentrating their recruitment efforts in the recent past.

The report titled Diversify with Data: Insights from higher ed institutions was published on 1 February 2023 by Studyportals, the international study choice platform.

It shows that that 14 countries make up half of all international student enrolments and only 54 countries, out of over 200 countries examined, make up 80% of international student enrolments worldwide, and that 30% of study-abroad students come from China and India.

Italy is top for ‘diversification’

In terms of the variety of countries from which universities recruit most of their foreign students, Italy is the top study-abroad country for diversification with 34 countries contributing to 80% of past student enrolments.

This backs up an earlier study by Studyportals into the fastest growing study-abroad destinations in the European Higher Education Area, which University World News reported on in July 2022.

Unsurprisingly, with such a splendid study location and strong academic portfolio, Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice, Italy, is recruiting students from over 70 countries, said a spokesperson. The latest cohorts on bachelor and masters programmes have student representation from around 50 countries, he told University World News.

Norway and Germany came joint second in terms of country of origin diversification of students, with 33 each, followed by France which recruits 80% of its international students from 31 countries.

“European countries benefit by being located in an interconnected network of different nationalities, with large expat communities, and often low tuition fees for foreign students,” Cara Skikne, senior editor at Studyportals, told University World News.

Three Anglosphere countries near the bottom

“Some of the largest destination countries for studying abroad in the Anglosphere, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are near the bottom for the diversification of their international student population. This is despite being world-known destinations, offering world-class higher education, and it is because they are overly reliant on just a handful of countries for their overseas students,” said Skikne, who produced the report with Market Intelligence Analyst Jacopo Gutterer.

The results may surprise some in UK universities, where concern is growing about over-dependence on recruitment from China in the past, and now from India and Nigeria.

British universities are in sixth place behind Hungary in the table for global diversity of student populations, recruiting from 26 foreign countries for 80% of their recent international student enrolments.

New Zealand lies third from the bottom of 25 countries investigated, recruiting the vast majority of its overseas students from just nine countries. Australia was said to be recruiting 80% of its foreign students from 12 countries, and Canada from 13 countries.

The United States was midway in the table, recruiting 80% of its foreign students from 20 countries.

Studyportals relied on estimates from UNESCO and the OECD to gain a coherent, global picture of student ability based on past enrolments, said Skikne, as data from some countries, including China and Nigeria, was not available.

To gain a better indication of where students may be enrolling in 12 to 24 months’ time, Studyportals examined where its core audiences of students are looking for ‘best-fit’ study-abroad options.

Skikne claims Studyportals attracts up to 52 million students each year who use its portals to find and compare English-language taught undergraduate and postgraduate programmes around the world.

A huge gap

The results show a huge gap between where the future potential mobile students are looking and where international students have been enrolled in the past. Skikne said universities should try to ensure their marketing efforts are targeted at countries where student interest is growing.

That includes watching new rivals, including a range of countries that are probably off the radar for many recruiting universities, such as Portugal and the Czech Republic, which in the past recruited under 10% of their students from abroad, but which both registered over 35% in terms of student interest from users of Studyportals search engines.

The Diversify with Data report also showed twice as much student interest in studying at higher education institutions in South Africa, Austria, Ireland and Spain compared to past enrolments. Germany was the only country to perfectly match future student interest with past enrolments.

The Studyportals report dug deeper than just the countries students are looking at. It compared and contrasted interest in different types of higher education institutions, using ‘custom groups’ such as the more elitist Russell Group universities and the rest of the higher education institutions in the UK, and the Group of Eight (Go8) and other institutions in Australia.

Students in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Spain, Greece and Japan were more interested in Russell Group universities while students from Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Iran, Pakistan and Nepal were mainly looking at non-Russell Group universities in the UK.

In terms of page views for Australia, the Go8 universities attracted most interest from 23 countries, three more than other higher education institutions in the country, with Go8 universities getting more interest from the US, the UK, Ghana and Turkey, while non-Go8 institutions attracted more interest from Malaysia, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The US attracted interest from a varied range of origin countries, despite reliance on just a handful when it comes to enrolments. Universities in the north-east of the United States got the most interest.

For Canada, the Studyportals analysis compared colleges and universities and found that while students from Iran, Bangladesh, Germany and the Netherlands are more likely to be looking at universities, those from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the UAE and the US are more likely to check for colleges.

Non-EU students in the UK

Many of the points highlighted by Studyportals are also emphasised in a report from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) released on 31 January 2023, which said the UK is now recruiting more first-year students from Nigeria than from the entire European Union.

The HESA data confirms an analysis by Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, covered in last week’s edition of University World News, which showed a growing demand from cost-conscious international students from non-EU countries, particularly India and Nigeria, for spots on full-time UK masters courses.

It also revealed a sharp decline in enrolments from EU students following the Brexit withdrawal agreement, first at an undergraduate level and now being seen at a postgraduate taught level.

The latest HESA breakdown shows a global shift for UK universities with, for example, the number of Nigerian students at Teesside University reaching 1,900 in 2021-22, with 1,795 on postgraduate taught programmes. The university has also been heavily recruiting students from India, reaching 2,745 last academic year, including 2,635 on postgraduate taught courses.

Coventry University, which has a strong reputation for international student recruitment, had 5,405 students from India in 2021-22, including 4,095 on postgraduate taught programmes, and 1,240 students from Nigeria, with 815 on postgraduate taught courses, said HESA.

This shows a global shift from the previous year with Times Higher Education reporting that Teesside had 575 students from Nigeria and 1,180 from India in 2020-21. For Coventry, the breakdown in 2020-21 was 935 from Nigeria and 2,580 from India.

Times Higher Education says more UK universities are now reliant on income from non-UK tuition fees, including University of the Arts London (UAL) which received 43.5% of its income from non-EU fees in 2020-21.

HESA data for 2021-22 shows UAL had 5,540 students from China in 2021-22, with 3,065 studying for a first degree and 2,060 on a postgraduate taught programme.

In contrast, UAL had 560 students from India, with 250 on postgraduate taught courses and 290 on first degrees. Teesside, by comparison, had 365 students from China – a fraction of its numbers for India and Nigeria – with 260 Chinese students on first degrees and 85 on postgraduate taught courses.

So, while many universities in the UK and other leading study abroad destinations are becoming more dependent on international students, the countries they rely on for the majority of foreign students can vary considerably between institutions and the level of study, Dr Vicky Lewis, a UK-based consultant in international higher education strategy development, told University World News.

“On the whole, recruitment at undergraduate level tends to be from a much wider range of countries than recruitment at postgraduate level.

“At postgraduate taught level, a report for Universities UK International produced last year by Dr Ilieva showed that 82% of UK higher education institutions are heavily reliant on one or two markets for the recruitment of their postgraduate taught students.

“For some, the balance may have shifted from China to India, but there is still one very dominant source country which, of course, has an impact on the experience of all students (a less diverse classroom) and on university support services.

“The challenges are well-recognised by individual institutions and we’re starting to see university international strategies that include targets focused on reversing that trend and improving the diversity of source countries,” said Lewis.

Barriers to access

The picture is similar in the United States, Dr David L Di Maria, senior international officer and associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told University World News.

He said: “What the Studyportals and other data shows is that most destination countries have great potential to diversify future enrolments, but they also have a lot of work to do in terms of eliminating real and perceived barriers to access.

“Institutions must find balance between short-term and long-term recruitment strategies. While it is tempting to focus on the handful of countries that contribute to the bulk of today’s enrolments, those willing to engage interested students beyond the current horizon will be much better positioned to meet future enrolment goals.”


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Written by Nic Mitchell,
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