Which nation has seen applications from U.S. students rise 48% in the pandemic?

Despite its popularity, however, this country might struggle to keep the momentum going because of soaring tuition.
By: | February 24, 2022
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Despite the roadblocks presented by COVID-19 and the political changes brought on by Brexit, the past two years have seen a significant rise in the number of U.S. students applying for enrollment in universities in the U.K.

While not leaving in droves to pursue postsecondary options – still fewer than 3,000 are accepted at British institutions – the increase in applications spanning 2020 and 2021 ballooned by 48%, the highest of any nation or territory, including the European Union. Applications for 2022 have been a bit slower, but officials expect those numbers to rise too as students are still allowed to submit them.

“As we recover from the COVID pandemic and see the increased opening up of international travel, this year was always going to be pivotal for the international student market,” said Clare Marchant, CEO at Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which fields most foreign student applications. “Applications have been very resilient throughout the pandemic. Nearly 9 in 10 still view the U.K. as an attractive place to study. We are expecting by 2026 the number of international students to grow by two-thirds.”

During the two-year stretch, nearly 8,000 applications poured in to the UCAS – students from the U.S. also have the option to use the Common App at a few institutions – and the number of acceptances reached a little more than 2,700, a nearly one-third percentage boost from pre-pandemic figures.

So what’s driving students from here and other locales to pursue studies in the U.K., besides its breakaway from the EU? Authors of the study note that prestige is No. 1 at 47%, with the “desire to live in the U.K.” (45%) and the quality of instruction (43%) close behind. A big benefit for postgraduates is the time to completion, with credentials being attained within one year.


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Despite the increased interest from Americans, the U.S. is pretty far down the pack when it comes to students outside enrolling in U.K. universities. The European Union had more than 54,000 applicants accepted in the 2021 cycle, followed by China at 16,300. India was next at 4,600. The U.S. is nearly level with Portugal but has overtaken Ireland, which saw 2,385 enrolled.

One potential drawback to studying in the U.K. that is affecting EU students since Brexit is cost. One report noted that tuition fees at some institutions have eclipsed $54,000 a year. Factor in the cost of living in some locations and it is simply not affordable for many in the EU. Once viewed by U.S. students as a strong alternative to U.S. private schools because of tuition, it is unclear whether the increases will turn off students from applying in the future.

For U.S. institutions, there may be opportunities to reach out to students in Central, Western and Eastern Europe, where nearly half of respondents to a survey done by UCAS noted “the U.K. is a worse option compared to the other destination countries they are considering” and where 80% cited cost as a factor. While the overwhelming majority of respondents noted a positive outlook about study in the U.K., many also expressed concerns such as operations during the pandemic, the long period of waiting for acceptance, complex student visa applications and potential job placements.

On the flip side, international students coming to the U.S. dropped sharply during 2019-20 to 2020-21 because of the pandemic, with the Institute of International Education noting a 46% decline in new student enrollment. But in its Open Doors Snapshot report in the fall of 2021 (with 60% of institutions), the IIE noted that there was a 68% increase in new student enrollment. The ability of institutions to both offer in-person and online courses, officials say, has led to the rebound. Around two-thirds of international students live on U.S. campuses. China continues to send the most students to the states at more than 300,000, and U.S. institutions are making a concerted effort to reach out and build back numbers.