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Diversification of international student populations has been a pressing concern for UK institutions over the last few years. The sector has come to recognise that over-reliance on specific countries, most commonly China, leaves institutions vulnerable to the whims of domestic and international policy as well as a multitude of other external factors outside of their control.

2020 has only reinforced the importance of a diverse international student body, with international disputes between governments threatening the stability of international student flows.

Add to this the impact of COVID-19, which has not only varied in its impact on different source countries but has also resulted in a complicated and wide-ranging set of domestic and international immigration policies, showcasing the importance of having an active recruitment presence across numerous source regions.

As we look forward to 2021,  broadening the scope of recruitment efforts should be high on the agenda of UK institutions. To help the sector find its feet and implement strategies effectively regarding prospective new markets, we are available to provide insight into global regions based on the live student data from our IQ On Demand tools.

Here, we will deliver key trend analysis of international student demand for the UK focusing on one of the biggest global players: India. Should you have any questions regarding the content covered here, or wish to discuss your international recruitment strategy with one of our expert team members, reach out to us here.

Why India?

When looking into diversifying international student populations, India should form a critical part of strategies for institutions in the UK. The regions within India have a large and growing prospective student population with a strong tradition of studying in the UK supported by well entrenched recruitment networks.

With January likely to deliver a strong international student intake for the UK, the concern for many UK institutions is turning to a less predictable and more competitive September 2021 intake. Here, again, India can bring some reassurance for the UK. Looking at the data from a 16,000 student sample using our www.hotcoursesabroad.com course matcher onsite tool, we are seeing a strong upward trend in the number of Indian students researching September 2021 start dates in the UK. In October, 39% of students were searching for September 2021 intake but that increased considerably to 49% of students in November, indicating that prospective students in India will continue to look towards the UK for courses starting in the Autumn of 2021.

What’s more, students in India have shown resilience to obstacles regarding studying abroad over the past year, suggesting that they are a more stable market than many others. These characteristics of the Indian market are evidenced in the graph below which shows traffic from Indian students searching for UK higher education courses on IDP Connect sites between January 1st 2019 and December 13th 2020.

As you can see, while demand from India for the UK as a destination began increasing in May 2019, there was a dramatic increase in September of that year which we can attribute to the announcement of the introduction of the new post study work visa option for international students. Interest in the UK hit a peak in September of 2019, remaining high for the remainder of 2019 and into the beginning of 2020.

After the outbreak of COVID-19 and the impact of the global pandemic, interest from Indian students in the UK fell significantly in March, reaching its lowest levels in June. However, from July, interest in studying in the UK began to recover almost as quickly as it declined, with the UK’s policy of allowing international students to travel into the UK being a key factor in students’ returning interest.

In encouraging news, over September and October of 2020, traffic from Indian students researching UK higher education courses was higher than the peak levels for 2019, suggesting that demand from this important region will not just return, but will continue to grow.

We see a second drop in traffic from India from the middle of October 2020 through to early November, likely in response to the UK entering a second national lockdown and the subsequent repercussions for international travel and in-person teaching. However, from November 9th there has been an immediate and significant increase in traffic which indicates that, outside of lockdowns, interest in studying in the UK from India remains strong.

Considering the trends from last year and the resilience of interest from international students this year, it is not overly optimistic to predict a second peak between January and March 2021, particularly if the UK is able to stay out of lockdowns and as students look forward to a possible return to normality for the September 2021 term after the introduction of a vaccine.

Combined, this suggests that not only will India provide a prime source of international students from the very start of 2021, but that should the upward trend in Indian student demand resume its pre-COVID-19 trajectory, the opportunities for international student recruitment in that region will continue to grow.

Indian Undergraduate and Postgraduate Student Demand by City: 2020 Trends

The following data and analysis looks at trends in demand for the UK from India between January 1st 2020 and December 13th 2020. Drilling down to the city trends for 2020, shown in the graphs below, we can see some striking similarities and differences in the undergraduate and postgraduate traffic trends. The top four cities of student demand for the UK are the same for postgraduate and undergraduate courses, and both study levels saw traffic drop off significantly in March, bottoming out over June and July, and starting to recover over the past three to four months. Equally, both undergraduate and postgraduate courses have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis with Hyderabad remaining the top source city for UK demand, followed by Chennai and Mumbai on almost equal footing.

Postgraduate Demand for the UK by Indian City

Undergraduate Demand for the UK by Indian City

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Hyderabad was the leading Indian city for Indian student demand to the UK at both study levels. However, the city was one of the worst hit by the impact of COVID-19, with demand dropping significantly until Hyderabad was below both Chennai and Mumbai in terms of searches on our site over the summer months. After a slower recovery initially, Hyderabad is once again the top city for Indian student demand to the UK, however, the gap between Hyderabad and the other top three cities has shrunk considerably for postgraduate searches, and at the undergraduate level the gap is even smaller.

The turbulence in Hyderabad’s student demand over last year is echoed for the other top 4 cities for both postgraduate and undergraduate searches, demonstrating how quickly demand trends at a city level can change. As we head into 2021 and the world changes once again, these city trends should continue to be monitored by institutions to inform their decisions about where to focus regional marketing spend.

Interestingly, while Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru are top cities for both undergraduate and postgraduate student demand to the UK, Pune comes in fifth position for postgraduate searches in 2020 while for undergraduate traffic Ahmedabad takes that position.

Furthermore, how student demand is spread out across the top five source cities, particularly as interest in studying in the UK began to recover, differs considerably between undergraduate and postgraduate students. For postgraduate searches, Hyderabad and Pune remain in the position they were at the start of 2020, first and fifth for student demand to the UK respectively (albeit with a decreased gap between them). However, the remaining three cities are closing 2020 neck and neck for postgraduate student demand, having reshuffled at various stages over the past year.

In contrast, we approach 2021 with all five cities on a near equal footing. Mumbai has overtaken Bengaluru to become joint second for undergraduate student demand with Chennai. Interestingly, when traffic for undergraduate courses first started to recover from the impact of COVID-19, Mumbai was briefly the top city for undergraduate student traffic and in August hit a peak that saw the number of undergraduate course searches increase to levels higher than before COVID-19. . Hyderabad retains top position but the gap between the top five cities is now almost negligible in terms of overall traffic, necessitating a keen understanding of the subject trends of each city in order to optimise recruitment.

Both undergraduate and postgraduate student recruitment from India will form a critical piece of the puzzle for UK institutions looking to diversify their student populations. To do this successfully, a granular understanding of which cities, subjects, and sub-discipline are driving interest at both study levels will be required.

In the remainder of this article, we will provide subject level analysis of the top three Indian cities for postgraduate student demand to the UK in 2020.

Postgraduate subject trends by city

Health and Medicine courses are the most popular postgraduate subject searches in Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai, demonstrating the prominence of the subject area’s popularity across India. In each of the three cities, Health and Medicine took over 30% of subject searches over the year in 2020, making up a considerable chunk of all Indian postgraduate interest in the UK. While Health and Medicine will be key subjects to market in each of these cities, Chennai had the strongest demand at 38%, demonstrating a strong skew towards the field from prospective postgraduate students in the city.

This overarching trend towards Health and Medicine at the subject level is important, however a more granular understanding of which subdisciplines are driving the subject demand in each city, will enable institutions to deliver targeted marketing and recruitment strategies to truly capitalise on student demand.

Furthermore, Health and Medicine is not the only subject area with strong demand for the UK, each of the top three postgraduate demand cities in India shows a unique spread of interest and student searched across different subject areas. In the below analysis, we will provide oversight of which subjects are attracting the highest demand in Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai (the three cities with the highest postgraduate demand for the UK).

Postgraduate Subject Demand in Hyderabad:

After a turbulent few months, Hyderabad is ending the year having retained its position as the leading source city for Indian postgraduate students to the UK, albeit with less of a margin. Hyderabad remains a key city for postgraduate student recruitment efforts, particularly in those subjects where there is most demand.

As shown in the above bar chart of Hyderabad 2020 postgraduate subject demand, although Health and Medicine courses take the largest share of course searches at nearly 32%, the other top four subject areas combined made up almost 60% of postgraduate student searches. Engineering and Technology courses received nearly a fifth of traffic from Hyderabad, indicating a strong interest from prospective postgraduate students in the city. This strong demand for Engineering and Technology is perhaps reflective of a city with a history of manufacturing and where industrial services form the backbone of the economy today. This could suggest postgraduate students are highly career motivated and see a postgraduate qualification in this field as key to a prosperous future.

Postgraduate Subject Demand in Chennai

In terms of Postgraduate student demand, Chennai was the city which faired the best during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing the lowest decline in searches for courses in the UK and recovering quickly from June. Indeed, in the middle of July, Chennai was the top city for postgraduate student demand to the UK.

Chennai is entering 2021 having closed the gap with Hyderabad for search traffic volume but is now sharing second place with both Mumbai and Bengaluru. This resilience of student demand even during a global pandemic indicates its importance as a source of postgraduate students. IDP Connect has a strong and growing presence in Chennai, as it is the location of our new Digital Campus, providing additional insight to the trends in postgraduate student demand which we are able to transcend into additional insights for our partners.

Demand for Health and Medicine courses is even more prominent in Chennai, at 38%, which can be attributed to the city’s status as the Health Capital of India. In Chennai, Business and Administrative courses are the second most popular at 17% over Engineering and Technology in third at 15%. As the largest industrial and commercial centre of South India, with a strong tradition in electronics and software, engineering, and automotive manufacturing, it is interesting that prospective postgraduate students are demonstrating a slight preference for Business and Administrative courses over Engineering and Technology, something which can be drilled down into in more detail through analysis of subdisciplines. These subject trends in one of India’s most affluent and increasingly aspirational cities are likely to continue to fluctuate and should be tracked carefully to optimise portfolios and marketing for ROI.

Postgraduate Subject Demand in Mumbai

In terms of postgraduate student demand for the UK, Mumbai is emerging from 2020 having increased its significance as a source of postgraduate students for the UK. The city has not only seen postgraduate student demand for the UK return to almost pre-COVID-19 levels, but also climbed from the 4th city in terms of postgraduate traffic for the UK early in the year to joint second after briefly leading for postgraduate student demand in early July. Given the volatility of city demand over the past year, and Mumbai’s peak in traffic in July, this is certainly a city to watch for increasing September 2021 recruitment opportunities as greater numbers of students in Mumbai look to the UK for postgraduate education.

Interestingly, in Mumbai, Business and Administrative Studies takes up over a quarter of all postgraduate course searches to the UK, far more than seen in Hyderabad or even Chennai and only 6% lower than Health and Medicine, which continues to dominate.

As a result of the significant trend towards Business and Administrative studies, the other three subjects in the cities’ top 5 (Applied and Pure Sciences, Engineering and Technology, and Computer and Mathematical Science) all see a considerably lower share of searches. This includes Applied and Pure Sciences, which comes in at 12%, lower than the share in Chennai and Hyderabad despite coming in third for the city.

This means that there is more interest in Applied and Pure Sciences in Hyderabad and Chennai than in Mumbai, but portfolios with strong Business and Administrations courses have the potential to see high interest in Mumbai, particularly if courses are tailored to match the sub-discipline trends emerging in this increasingly important city.


We have shown the significant and growing opportunities in India for international student recruitment, offering an important and well-positioned market for institutions heading into the new year with the goal to diversify the student population. This is a market that is recovering particularly well from the impact of COVID-19 and shows the promise of continued growth in the years ahead.

The data has also shown the importance of a tailored regional approach, demonstrating that subject trends can differ significantly and that even the prominence of city markets themselves can fluctuate rapidly, thus needing consistent monitoring for the best ROI.

For analysis of the remaining cities, or to explore trends at a sub-discipline or undergraduate level, we recommend subscribing to our On Demand Tracker Tool. More availability of this live data analysis service is available here.

Institutions focusing on undergraduate international student recruitment may also find this recent article on a new program for engaging prospective undergraduate students in India useful, available here.

CP - Image - Headshot - Ella Grimwade - UK
Ella Grimwade16 December 2020