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A snapshot of international students in the UK

February 2023

The OECD's latest Education at a Glance report provides data on how many internationally mobile students come to the UK, where they come from and what they choose to study

The United Kingdom is among the most attractive destinations in the world for internationally mobile students, with recently released data revealing that it accounts for 13% of such students across OECD and partner countries.1

That equates to 551,000 international students in total. Only the USA entices a greater proportion of all international students (22%). The UK's strength in this area is encouraging for those who see the positive impact that international students have on the country.

As well as the economic benefits associated with hosting international students, the interactions that occur between them and domestic students can help to facilitate the cultural understanding and dialogue that many argue is essential for navigating an increasingly globalised world.2

Which students come to the UK?

Origins of international students in the UK,Percentage
Asia ,59
Europe ,28
North America ,5
Latin America,2

Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators Report, OECD, 2022.

Asia (59%) and Europe (28%) account for the largest proportion of international students studying in the UK by quite a large margin. Africa (6%), North America (5%), Latin America (2%) and Oceania (1%) provide considerably less.3,4

The large number of European students in the UK is unsurprising given the importance of geographic proximity to the decision-making of internationally mobile students. To illustrate, the two European countries contributing the most first-year international students to the UK in 2015/16 were Germany (3%) and France (3%) - two of the closest in terms of proximity (as well as the largest populations).5,6

Nevertheless, the even larger portion of internationally mobile students entering the UK from Asian countries tells a completely different story.

The main driver of student migration is the perceived differential in educational capacity between host and home nations (i.e. 'a lack of educational facilities in the country of origin or the prestige of educational institutions in the country of destination').7 The fact that the UK is one of only four countries that two-thirds of all internationally mobile Asian and Indian students converge on illustrates just how attractive British higher education institutions are.

The popularity of league tables serves to reinforce perceived differences in quality across institutions, and British universities make up 14% of the top 150 higher education institutions worldwide.8 Only the USA has more top universities. This helps to explain the phenomenon by which the USA and UK account for a third of all internationally mobile students across OECD and partner countries.

What do they study?

According to the OECD data, students appear to be more likely to travel abroad for more advanced academic programmes. This is borne out by findings showing that, on average across OECD countries, enrolment in tertiary education programmes increases with education level.9

Proportion of international students by level of study OECD,Percentage of students by level of study

Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators Report, OECD, 2022.

This trend is also evident within the UK. However, the UK figures are well above both OECD and EU23 averages at every level. At Bachelors level, only two countries (Luxembourg and Austria) saw a greater proportion of international student enrolments than the UK in 2020. Two countries (Luxembourg and Australia) had a greater proportion at Masters level, and four (Switzerland, New Zealand, Netherlands and Luxembourg) at Doctoral level.

Proportion of international students in the UK by level of study,Percentage of students by level of study

Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators Report, OECD, 2022.

Meanwhile, OECD data reveals that business, administration and law (33%), engineering, manufacturing and construction (15%), and the arts and humanities (13%) are responsible for attracting the largest volume of international students to the UK.

Distribution of international or foreign students by field of origin,Percentage
Education ,2
Arts and humanities ,13
Social sciences journalism and information ,12
Business administration and law ,33
Natural sciences mathematics and statistics,12
Information and communication technologies ,5
Engineering manufacturing and construction,15
Agriculture forestry fisheries and veterinary,1
Health and welfare,7

Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators Report, OECD, 2019.

How do they contribute?

While there are costs that come with hosting international students, mobile students have proven to be an important source of income for host countries, where they have repeatedly been shown to have a huge positive impact on economic systems.10

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has found that while the aggregate cost to the UK exchequer associated with international students in 2018/19 was £2.9bn, this was eclipsed by the economic benefit. The same cohort was estimated to contribute £28.8bn over the entire duration of their studies (EU students: £6.1bn, non-EU students: £22.7bn).11

Therefore, the net economic benefit to the UK economy per EU student in this cohort will be an estimated £71,000, rising to £102,000 per non-EU student. In other words, every 14 EU students and every 10 non-EU students generate £1m worth of net economic impact for the UK economy over the duration of their studies.12

Students who enter into the UK also play a key role in mitigating a number of key skills gaps in the labour market - assuming that they enter employment in industries broadly related to their field of study. This is particularly the case in industries such as information and communication, engineering and technology, and human health and social work.13

While the long-term impact of Brexit on the number of student coming to the UK from the EU remains unknown, the reintroduction of the post-study work visa for non-EU students will ensure that the UK maintains its position as one of the most attractive host countries in the world.

Although we have seen a sharp fall in enrolments from EU countries, UK universities enrolled 350,300 first-year, non-EU international students in 2021/22 – compared to 189,500 in 2017/18.14

Given the size and importance of this group, it's important that universities are ready to help them prepare for the workplace. Find out how to better understand and advise international students.


  1. Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators Report, OECD, 2022.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The top supplier of first-year international students from the African continent is Nigeria, which contributed a total of 5,585 students in 2018/19.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The costs and benefits of international students by parliamentary constituency, HEPI, 2021.
  6. This is also supported by the fact that in Austria, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Slovak Republic and Switzerland, upwards of 50% of all internationally mobile students derive from neighbouring countries.
  7. The costs and benefits of international students by parliamentary constituency, HEPI, 2021.
  8. World University Rankings 2023, Times Higher Education, 2023.
  9. Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators Report, OECD, 2022.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The costs and benefits of international students by parliamentary constituency, HEPI, 2021.
  12. Ibid.
  13. The UK’s tax revenues from international students post-graduation, HEPI, 2019.
  14. UK universities report sharp post-Brexit drop in EU students, Nature, 2023.

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