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Older Students Helping Drive Growth in the UK’s International Education Sector

In the past, we’ve looked at the impact of applicant age on Canadian student visa approval rates. Those findings showed that older international students experience a larger approval hurdle than younger students. And data elsewhere shows that mature students also have trouble getting a F-1 student visa in the US.

Here’s some good news for older students: The UK has rapidly increased the number of students aged 25 and older that it has welcomed over the past five years. In fact, more than 95,000 first-year mature students (25 and over) were welcomed by the UK in 2020/21.1

How are mature international students impacting the UK’s international education sector? What are they studying? And where are these students arriving from? Let’s dive into the data to answer these questions and more.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • 30% of all first-year international students in the UK were 25 or over in 2020/21. This was six percentage points higher than each of the previous three years.
  • From 2016/17 to 2020/21, the number of first-year international students aged 30 and older was up 62%, and the number of first-year students aged 25-29 was up 56%.
  • 84% of first-year mature international students were in postgraduate studies in 2020/21.
  • In 2020/21, the top five markets for first-year international students over 25 were India, China, Nigeria, the United States, and Pakistan. These five markets accounted for 54% of all first-year mature students in the UK that year.

A lot of the growth we’re about to unpack was propelled by the introduction of the Graduate Route (GR). The GR provides an opportunity for international students who have been awarded their degree to stay in the UK and work, or look for work, at any skill level for two years, or three years for doctoral students. This has been music to the ears of prospective international students around the world, and particularly for career-oriented older students.

The UK Welcoming More Mature International Students

Over the past five years, student enrollment for older students has been booming in the UK. The chart below shows the number of first-year students welcomed to the UK since 2016/17 broken down by age:

International students aged 25-29, as well as those aged 30 and over, have been on the rise, particularly since 2018/19. Combined, these two mature cohorts accounted for more than 95,000 new student enrollments in 2020/21, surpassing students aged 20 and under.

The combined mature student total was nearly 35,000 more than the combined total in 2016/17. The number of student enrollments for the 25-29 first-year cohort increased by nearly 20,800 during this time frame, while the 30 and over first-year cohort grew by nearly 14,200.

With the chart below, you can toggle between different student ages to see the year-over-year growth for each student cohort:

In 2020/21, the number of student enrollments for first-year international students aged 30 and older grew by 36% compared to the previous year, and those aged 25-29 grew 21%. During this same period, the number of first-year students aged 18-20 declined by 3%, and students aged 21-24 dropped by 5%.

Also, the two mature student cohorts saw the largest growth from 2016/17 to 2020/21. Over this period, the 25-29 cohort increased by 56%, while the 30 and over cohort grew by 62%.

What Mature International Students Choose to Study in the UK — Study Levels

Now that we’ve seen that student enrollment totals for mature students have been growing in the UK, let’s jump into what those students choose to study. With the chart below, you can toggle between undergraduate and postgraduate studies to compare the number of students in each study level:

The UK has accepted more first-year international students into postgraduate studies than undergraduate studies every year for the past five years. As a result, it makes sense that older students would find a welcoming environment in the UK.

First-Year International Students in Undergraduate Studies in the UK

The undergraduate level is, unsurprisingly, dominated by students aged 20 and under. In each of the past five years, this cohort has accounted for 70% or more of all first-year international students at the undergraduate level. Including a 3% decline in 2020/21 compared to the previous year, the cohort has grown by 18% since 2016/17.

Since 2016/17, the 30 and over first-year international student cohort has grown 165% at the undergraduate level, including a growth of 57% in 2020/21 compared to the previous year. Students aged 25-29 are up 67% over the five year period, and grew 21% in 2020/21 compared to the previous year.

First-Year International Students in Postgraduate Studies in the UK

Of the 95,000 mature (25 or over) international students arriving in the UK in 2020/21, 84% entered postgraduate studies. Students aged 25-29 grew the most of all cohorts from 2016/17 to 2020/21, increasing by 54%. They were followed by the 30 and over cohort, which grew by 47% over the same period. The two cohorts grew by 21% and 31%, respectively, in 2020/21 compared to the previous year.

Students aged 21-24 dominated the postgraduate level over the past five years, representing between 58% and 63% of all first-year international students in this level each year. The cohort grew 44% over the five years, but declined by 3% in 2020/21 compared to the previous year.

The dominance of postgraduate students is exciting to see, as many of these students are already highly educated and research-focused, which typically sparks future innovation.

What Mature International Students Choose to Study in the UK — Fields of Study

The chart below shows the top fields of study for first-year mature international students in the UK since 2018/19:

There were 14,770 first-year mature international students in the UK at the undergraduate level in 2020/21. The top field of study among these students was health, physical and life sciences, which accounted for nearly 6,500 students that year. This represented 44% of all first-year mature undergraduates, and was a growth of 338% since 2018/19. The next most popular field of study was business and management, with nearly 3,700 students in 2020/21.

As there was more than five times the number of first-year mature international students in postgraduate than undergraduate studies, let’s dive a little deeper into the postgraduate fields of study:

Business and management took over as the top field of study for first-year mature international students pursuing postgraduate studies in the UK in 2019/20, and continued to hold the top spot in 2020/21. With more than 27,600 students, this field accounted for 34% of the cohort in 2020/21, and grew by 79% since 2018/19.

The second most popular field of postgraduate study was arts, humanities and social sciences, accounting for over 18,800 first-year mature international students in the UK in 2020/21.

Math and computer science was the fastest-growing postgraduate field since 2018/19, growing by 134%. The second fastest-growing field was business and management, followed by engineering with 41% growth.

Top Source Markets for Mature International Students in the UK

The chart below shows the top 10 source markets for first-year mature international students in the UK since 2018/19:

Several source markets grew exponentially over the past three years. Mature students from India increased by 334% from 2018/19 to 2020/21, taking over the top spot in 2020/21. 71% of mature Indian students were aged 25-29.

The Philippines was the only other source market to grow by more than 300% over this period, up 378% as its mature student population grew from 400 in 2018/19 to over 1,900 in 2020/21. Bucking the trend of most other markets, almost 1,700 of mature Filipino students—or 89%—entered undergraduate studies in 2020/21.

First-year mature students from Nigeria grew by 249% from 2018/19 to 2020/21. Nigeria was also the top source market for the 30 and over cohort in 2020/21, with more than 6,000 first-year students. 88% of the 30 and over cohort entered postgraduate studies.

Other major growing source markets for mature international students over the past three years include Nepal (+235%), Bangladesh (+234%), and Pakistan (+164%).

Looking Forward

As we highlighted in our deep dive on Nigerian students, we believe that eliminating age-based barriers for international students will play a critical role for the competitiveness of destination markets in the coming years. The UK, by regularly welcoming more postgraduate students than undergraduate students, is well poised to secure a competitive advantage over other destination markets when it comes to older students.

In our discussion with ApplyBoard UK Advisory Board Member Nick Hillman earlier this year, we dived into how policy decisions are driving a boom in the UK’s international education sector. For example, the introduction of the Graduate Route helped the UK grow in 2020/21 despite the global slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With this in mind, it will be important for the UK to continue creating innovative student-oriented policies—particularly around mature students—to maintain its positive momentum and further secure its competitive advantage over other destination markets. Recruitment and marketing campaigns could also emphasize career opportunities afforded by the GR and other policies to further entice mature applicants to UK campuses.

Watch for articles on emerging markets, fields of study, and regional trends in the UK’s international education sector in the coming weeks!

 

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About the ApplyInsights Team

Led by ApplyBoard Co-Founder and CMO Meti Basiri, the ApplyInsights Team analyzes the latest government, third-party, and ApplyBoard internal data, to provide a complete picture of trends in the international education industry. They also work with industry experts and ApplyBoard team members to gather local insights across key source and destination countries, where ApplyBoard has helped more than 300,000 students around the world.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1. All data courtesy of HESA. Note that this data does not include the following institutions: Falmouth University, University of Worcester, and London South Bank University. Per HESA’s standard rounding methodology, all counts of people have been rounded to the nearest multiple of five. All percentages reflect groups of 23 or more people.

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