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International student recruitment has surprised the whole sector this year. Despite the numerous and seemingly overwhelming barriers standing between international students and commencement of studies in the UK this September, the string intent to commence with studies as planned that applicants and offer holders reported in our two International Student Crossroads surveys is translating into enrolments in the UK – and in big numbers. 

Indeed, international undergraduate student numbers have broken records this year, with The PIE reporting that more international students are taking up places at UK institutions than ever before. 

While it should be pointed out that undergraduate students make up only around half of international students on courses in the UK according to the latest HESA data, and the full postgraduate numbers are still to be publicly released, our own data coupled with this trend in undergraduate applicants suggests the forecast is not as bleak for international student recruitment in the UK as was feared.  

Furthermore, for the UK, the past 4 months have seen interest from international students overtake that of Canada to become the most in-demand international study destination, a trend we can see demonstrated in the graph below taken from our international IQ Demand Tracker tool.   

Graph:  International student demand by destination country - 1st January 2020 to 11th October 2020 (all study levels)

However, as the above graph demonstrates, while the UK has experienced and maintained a surge in interest that positions it above other key destination countries, interest in the UK appears to be plateauing just as interest in Canada and Australia continues to climb.  

Most of the searches we are seeing now are for January 2021 and September 2021, the former of which is an intake that is usually dominated by Australia and Canada who traditionally have large intakes at the beginning of the calendar year. However, in 2021, the January intake takes on new significance for institutions in the UK looking to diversify their profile and further secure student numbers. Recent traffic indicates that the UK could perform strongly against the traditional January destinations, in addition to achieving another record-breaking year in September, but only if it can retain the current levels of interest in the face of quickly developing competition from other destination heavyweights.   

With this in mind, it is vital that the UK acts quickly to capitalise on its lead, particularly when we consider the typical international recruitment cycle. Using the international IQ Demand Tracker tool, we can track student search data on our sites over the last year to identify peaks and troughs of traffic in the recruitment cycle. The data from 2019, displayed in the below graph, indicates that searches for the UK as a study destination typically have 2 clear peaks, January and September. Both of these “peak months” received similar numbers of searches, however the later tails off more gradually with high traffic through October and into November.  

Graph: UK demand from international students - 1st January 2019 to 31st December 2019 (all study levels)

This means that while a more focused and intense January recruitment campaign is likely to be the most successful, an extended autumn campaign across September, October and November could dramatically improve recruitment for both January and September intakes. This point regarding Autumn recruitment is particularly significant this year, when so much of the recruitment cycle (from both the institutions’ and students’ perspective) has been delayed. 

1 in 3 students are highly likely to change destination

With the trends in traffic indicating that we are just entering the critical months for 2021 international student recruitment, it's vital that we take into account the mindset of international students and the predictability of their behaviour. From the two International Student Crossroads surveys that IDP has undertaken so far this year, a third due in November, it has become apparent that there is a strong demand and intent from students to study overseas which has not been curtailed by the impact of COVID-19.

Graph: International Student Crossroads 2: likelihood of international applicants and offer holders switching destinations for in-person teaching, by destination country

However, our International Student Crossroads surveys also revelaed that 1 in 3 students will change destinations if it means they can start face-to-face. What this means for institutions is that the likelihood of students switching destinations, even after having accepted an offer, is higher this year than ever before. The current lack of destination loyalty puts UK universities at risk if they rest on healthy application numbers alone, which can be fickle and fail to convert into physical enrollments. However, the unprecedented demand and current perception of the UK as a destination could also present a rare opportunity to permanently enhance its status as a destination country and the appeal of UK institutions.  

The full results of both International Students Crossroads surveys are available in bespoke IQ dashboards for International IQ subscribers. These dashboards enable a breakdown of what students are planning to do, their key motivators and the issues most likely to cause a halt or change to their study plans. In the IQ dashboards, this data can be broken down to a granular level, including enabling our partners to filter by source and destination country as well as study level. For more information on accessing the IQ dashboards, reach out to us here

Postgraduate Vs Undergraduate: Key points for two contrasting student audiences 

While the broader trends in international student recruitment provide important insight into the UK’s position in the market and key points in the recruitment cycle this year, the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate students must be highlighted in order to identify the opportunities and risks, as well as to target different audiences effectively.  

Postgraduate Student Recruitment  

The UK’s lead as a destination country is strongest in postgraduate student interest, good news in terms of establishing the UK's position in a key and growing audience of prospective students. However, in the graph below, we can see the significant gap between interest for UK postgraduate courses and those of other destination countries beginning to close. While the UK has seen a steady and rapid increase in postgraduate searches since May, the trend appears to be flattening and UK institutions should be wary that unless marketing efforts are invested in urgently we may see this upward trend peak and turn into a bell curve earlier than desired. Furthermore, interest in Canada postgraduate courses continues to climb steadily with no sign of flattening out like the UK, and if this trend continues could retake the top spot. Equally, Australia has seen an even sharper surge in interest over the last month, perhaps in response to recent announcements from the Australian government regarding trailing entry for small pilot groups of international students. Both Canada and Australia are closing the gap between themselves and the UK, threatening the latter’s chance of establishing itself as the leading postgraduate destination.  

Graph:  Postgraduate international student demand by destination country - 1st January 2020 to 11th October 2020 

However, it is not too late and if institutions in the UK strike quickly, they can not only secure but enhance their positions in the international postgraduate student market.  

The postgraduate market differs slightly from the overall international student recruitment cycle in terms of key periods of interest. While international postgraduate student interest also has 2 peaks, in the Autumn and at the start of the year, the January peak has less impact than the extended period of high interest which last year stretched from September to November, as shown in the graph below.  

Graph: UK demand from international postgraduate students - 1st January 2019 to 31st December 2019 

Last year, while January was certainly a period of high traffic and a key stage in the recruitment cycle, the September, October and November months all delivered higher numbers of searches for postgraduate courses in the UK with the latter two months seeing the most searches. 

This leads us to a couple of key conclusions for international postgraduate student recruitment: 

1) We must recognise that October and November of this year will prove critical for international postgraduate student recruitment to the UK. They are key months for postgraduate searches and given the delays of this year and the strong interest we have seen reflected in our surveys, capitalising on these months will prove essential to establishing the UK's position in the market. This is made doubly important given the recovery being seen by Canada and Australia, for whom the January intake is of high value and the marketing strategies these destination countries are implementing are clearly beginning to deliver. 

2) January is currently a weaker period for postgraduate courses, however given that the UK traditionally outperforms key destinations like Australia in September, there is a clear opportunity to expand on January marketing efforts to increase traffic at this stage and utilise the September intake to its full extent.  

Undergraduate student recruitment 

As demonstrated in the below graph, competition is tightest at the undergraduate level, where not only is international student interest in Canada only marginally below that of the UK, but Australia has also begun to show a sharp increase in searches over the last month and is rapidly gaining ground on the two most popular destination countries, again possibly in reaction to signs that Australia and Canada may be preparing to begin opening borders to international students, albeit slowly. 

After a record-breaking year in international undergraduate student recruitment, the UK is in a strong position to build on for the January and September 2021 intakes, however, the pressure is already on as other destination countries up their game. 

Graph: Undergraduate international student demand by destination country - 1st January 2020 to 11th October 2020  

The recruitment cycle and marketing for undergraduate international students is a slightly different beast to both the patterns we see in the cycle as a whole and to the behaviour of postgraduate students. In direct contrast to postgraduate prospects, for undergraduate students the January recruitment window is the most important, with a much higher peak in traffic for undergraduate courses in the UK than during the second September.  

Graph: UK demand from international undergraduate students - 1st January 2019 to 31st December 2019

CP - Image - Why UK institutions need to act now 1

With regards to international undergraduate recruitment for institutions in the UK, there are a couple of key takeaways: 

1) Whilst the most competitive study level for international student recruitment, and currently the one with the lowest number of students in the UK, undergraduate international student recruitment is a key growth opportunity and could prove essential in terms of diversifying and thus securing recruitment outcomes. 

 2) Although the autumn period should not be ignored and would benefit from intelligent marketing throughout October and November, focusing efforts on a highly targeted and intense period of marketing in January is likely to yield the highest results, particularly with regards to top of funnel leads for September which can then be effectively nurtured.


Acting now is vital for UK institutions not only for securing successful recruitment outcomes for January and September 2021, but in order to capitalise on a golden opportunity to establish the UK as the top study destinations for international students.  

The UK have entered the recruitment cycle in a strong position, but the international student landscape is far from stable with other key destinations adapting, implementing targeted and effective marketing strategies, and quickly gaining ground.  

September may be over, but far from signalling the end of the UK’s key recruitment periods, it signals the beginning. October and November will be crucial months, particularly for postgraduate student marketing, while January offers a second chance that will prove particularly significant in terms of 2021’s undergraduate international students. 

For institutions in the UK, the focus for October and November should slightly air on the side of Postgraduate students while in January the weighting should switch to intensify efforts on undergraduate students. Marketing to both level of study but with different weightings at these two key stages of the recruitment cycle will help to capitalise on both the prolonged postgraduate period of interest in the Autumn and the spike in undergraduate interest in January, diversify portfolios andsecuring a strong recruitment cycle. 

Messaging should focus the aspects of the UK which reflect the priorities international students highlighted in our International Student Crossroads survey, particularly the areas where the UK have an advantage over Australia and Canada. Features such as the increased likelihood of in-person teaching and ability to enter the country, coupled with the experience of UK institutions in managing outbreaks of COVID safely and with minimal impact on their students’ education, could have a powerful impact on student preferences. 

Maintaining an up-to-the-minute understanding of the state of the market at a global and national level will prove essential for institutions in the UK as they strategically navigate a year of international student recruitment that will be fraught with competition from institutions all over the world. Tracking where demand is coming from and going to, fluctuations in interest at a subject and study level, and oversight over the performance of key competitors, will all prove essential to achieving a successful year of student recruitment.

How we can help 

IDP are global leaders in international student marketing, with a diverse and highly targeted range on international student marketing and recruitment services intelligently guided by our unrivalled live student datasets and analytical services. Our bespoke IQ On Demand Tracker tools and dashboards enable partners to track live and historic trends in student demand right down to a granular level, providing an unparalleled level of insight into the state of the international student market at every level. IQ Research and Consultancy services take this insight a step further, utilising our global network of counsellors, world-beating live student data, and experienced team of sector experts to facilitate both qualitative and quantitative research that:

  • Identifies key portfolio gaps and areas for growth

  • Delivers informed marketing and recruitment strategy recommendations

  • Provides actionable recommendations for reaching targeted recruitment outcomes

To begin a conversation on how we can support your institution in the current recruitment cycle and establish your institution as a leader in a leading destination, reach out to us here.

*Please note, this article has been updated since original posting to remove mention of trends in international student recruitment in Ireland which were not sufficiently supported with data. Trends and analysis for Irish institutions will be covered with the latest data from our IQ tools in a future article.

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Ella Grimwade20 October 2020