International Student Numbers – Higher Education (Online Learning)


To say the higher education sector is currently at a crossroads is somewhat of an understatement.

Many universities are grappling with financial difficulties, as well as the need to adapt to the demands of future-proofing their institutions, to not only restore financial stability but to prosper in a rapidly changing environment.

Regardless of the institution, many Vice-chancellors and Provosts across the UK have expressed similar concerns and challenges. The issues expressed to us stem partly from stagnation in government funding and the general inflationary environment, in conjunction with reports of a decline in student enrolment, specifically international students.

The figures

I don’t think many would disagree that international students are paramount for the UK economy, with international students generating a total economic benefit of approximately £41.9 billion in the academic year 2021/22 alone.

In terms of tuition costs, for undergraduate programs, the fees for international students typically range from £11,400 to £67,892 per year, with the cost generally higher for subjects like medicine and lower for arts and humanities (Save the Student). Postgraduate fees also vary, with MBAs at about £21,754(Save the Student)(British Council Study UK). In 2022/23 fee income from all international students was £11.8 billion. This was 23% of total income, up from around 5% in the mid-1990s.

The figures illustrate that there is a significant financial commitment required for international students pursuing higher education in the UK, a commitment international students have been willing to make for years. After all, the UK has long been one of the most popular destinations for study. Largely due to the range of courses offered and internationally recognised degrees. If it weren't for a less-than-tropical climate, the appeal could be greater still!

So, what’s the problem?

Data from an international student enrolment platform suggests that postgraduate entrants in January 2024 were down by around one-third. Noted, there has been delays with the publication of comprehensive student data for 2022/23, however there are some strong signs of a fall in student numbers in 2023 and early 2024.

The number of student visas granted fell by 5% in 2023. And a recent article published by the Guardian gathered data from more than 60 UK universities which shows that the number of study visas issued has fallen by 33% this year compared to the same time last year.

A separate survey of 70 universities by Universities UK, found that enrolments in postgraduate taught courses were down by more than 40% since January’s immigration changes, which announced some new restrictions on student visa conditions, in which people coming to do taught postgraduate courses lost the right to bring dependent family members to the UK, and new students have been prevented from switching into a work visa before the end of their course.

That being said, any further changes have since been postponed, with the Sunak Government reaffirming its commitment to the International Education Strategy.

Universities with the help of the Government (whoever that may be), need to do all they can to ensure the UK remains a leading destination of choice for those choosing to study in the UK from abroad and worth noting that some positive articles actually praise the growth in student enrolment over the last 10 years when looking at the broader view.

So, what can we do?

One approach would be to leverage technology. During May 2024, there have been several interesting developments that highlight the crucial role that Digital Learning plays in the Higher education sector. Credit to Kate Lindsay (SVP Academic Services at Higher Ed Partners) for compiling this list in a recent LinkedIn post:

🎓 The Higher Education Commission released a report on Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning, emphasising the benefits of technology in higher education, including widened participation and improved student outcomes: 

Data from the US shows a significant increase in younger students enrolling in online programs, with undergraduate enrolments rising by almost two-thirds: 

📈 The Open University published a research report on relaxed tutorials in online learning, showcasing how it can offer a more inclusive education for students with disabilities: 

🌍 The World Economic Forum's latest report looks into AI's impact on education, advocating for responsible AI integration in educational systems worldwide: 

👨🎓 HEPI's new report on student attrition calls for a new approach to non-continuation, highlighting challenges that impact online learners specifically:

✈ The latest Transnational Education data sheds light on the international online student market, showing modest growth and untapped potential. Read Neil Mosley's blog for insights:

It’s no secret that digital learning has become increasingly important for higher education, offering numerous benefits and opportunities for both institutions and students. In fact, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, digital learning played a crucial role in helping UK universities maintain continuity, support students, and adapt to unprecedented challenges.

Higher education is likely a few steps behind other industries and although there is no single way to achieve digital transformation successfully, as it depends on the context of each organisation/institute, there is still a massive opportunity for growth.

The necessity for it is widely recognised, but there is still a limited understanding of the most effective way to progress. Get it right and reap the rewards!


I don’t claim to be an expert within the higher education sector, I just provide Digital Learning resource to it. But whilst writing this blog I was surprised at the amount of contradicting literature / articles around the challenges facing UK universities. Some were far more optimistic than others!

I would be interested to hear the thoughts of those working in the industry. Is the Higher Education sector in crisis? Or is this just another blip that will soon usher in a return of more promising times (again)?

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