UK international student recruitment changes: away from the EU, towards South Asia and West Africa

UK universities and higher education institutions are re-examining their recruitment strategies and models, with a focus on long-term sustainability and the need to diversify international student recruitment.

This major new blog series, ‘Strategies for sustainability: diversifying international student recruitment’, focuses on a range of factors that institutions need to consider as they reshape their strategies and recruitment programmes – sustainability in finance, environmental impact, progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and institutions’ values overall.

In the coming months, the series will cover: what data tells us about the rising importance of South Asia and West Africa to UK admissions departments; insights into other emerging international markets; the value of engaging with a broader range of students’ prior learning experiences and pathways; sustainable values and societal impact; English language proficiency; environmental sustainability; sustainable presence and practice; and the bigger picture including how success can be measured.

In this, the first of the series, we look at some of the Ecctis data that signals an increasing focus in UK student recruitment on the markets of South Asia and West Africa.


Analysing trends in Ecctis member enquiry data reveals some of the changing patterns in student recruitment strategies of UK universities and HEIs, as they seek long-term sustainability and greater resilience through more diversified recruitment.

UK-based recruiting organisations account for the large majority of requests for information submitted through our enquiry service. So careful analysis of changing patterns in the enquiries provides valuable insight into the changes taking place across UK higher education sector recruitment. It can also help us understand trends we might expect to see developing over the next few years.

Since 2019, one of the key changes has been a shift in the countries that our clients ask about, away from the EU, and towards countries in South Asia and West Africa.

India has been the top country for member enquiries every year since 2015, with the number of enquiries about India more than trebling over the same period. Growth has accelerated since 2018, as indicated in the graphic:

Enquiries about Pakistan grew too: by over a fifth between 2019 and 2021, reaching over 1,000 in 2021 for the first time.

Meanwhile, enquiries about Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also increased by of over half and over 40% respectively during the same period.

Nigeria provoked strong interest as well, with enquiries rising nearly 60% between 2019 and 2021. And questions relating to Benin, where increasing numbers of Nigerian students choose to study, also rose significantly.

Whilst the rise in enquiries about Ghana was more modest, it was still tangible, and also points towards the increasing importance of West Africa to UK institutions’ future recruitment models.

These trends are also reflected in statistics from HESA, showing that the number of Nigerian student enrolments in the UK rose by 88.5% between 2019/20 and 2020/21. The number of students from Pakistan also rose by over 80% year-on-year.

COVID-19 and international demand for UK higher education

The trends we see in UK ENIC enquiry numbers and in HESA statistics have been prompted by increased demand.

In particular, the introduction of the Graduate Visa in 2019 has boosted demand from these countries.

Likewise, border closures related to COVID-19 in other popular destinations, such as Australia, have also led to an increase in students looking to study in the UK.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated demand for UK education (and often campus-based study), at a time when travel has been highly restricted. It has also helped to accelerate the changing geographic profile of international students in the UK.

The Brexit effect

The impact of Brexit is also clearly visible in the member enquiry data, with in a fall of nearly 10% in the overall number of enquiries submitted relating to EU countries between 2019 and 2021.

Many countries saw an even larger decline, including France (-18.6%), Germany (-12%), Portugal (-13.7%), Greece (-25.4%) and the Netherlands (-29.3%). This is not unexpected with EU applicants in 2021 becoming the first cohort to pay tuition fees at the international student level.

Undergraduate recruitment is also likely to see a more significant impact than postgraduate recruitment given the additional length, and cost, of these courses.

UCAS end-of-cycle data also showed that the number of applicants for undergraduate study from the EU fell from 52,865 in 2020 to 31,670 in 2021, with student numbers from Eastern European countries the most severely affected.

Diversifying international recruitment

These rapid changes, combined with the uncertainties of recent years, demonstrate the importance of admissions and recruitment departments in UK institutions diversifying their international student recruitment.

The next article in this series will examine how many institutions are looking at emerging markets, setting out where UK institutions’ future recruitment efforts might be best focused.

Support for sustainable recruitment strategies

Ecctis is developing new services to help our members devise and implement new, sustainable, diversified recruitment strategies.

Our partnership with SJRennie Consulting Ltd and AfaraEd enables UK institutions to work with us to develop solutions, as the case study below demonstrates.

Queens University, Belfast

International recruitment staff at Queens University first engaged SJRennie consultancy services in 2020.

Heather Taylor, the university’s Head of International Markets, explains that the aim was to deliver a customised report, including a number of key recommendations, to help inform the University’s ongoing strategic direction in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.

‘Since August 2021, we have been working collaboratively with AfaraEd to operationalise our Sub Saharan Africa Strategy,’ she says.

She believes that it’s thanks to AfaraEd’s demonstrable knowledge, respected position and expertise in the region, that the university now has a very clear strategic and operational plan in place to support the delivery of its growth ambition.

‘It also enabled us to avoid the “trial and error” period that inevitably comes with entering a new region,’ she adds.

The consultants have continued to work with university staff, guiding them through all aspects of the university’s engagement with the region, and above all prioritising its institutional reputation.