ApplyInsights: Analyzing Student Sentiment in the UK Government’s Priority Markets

When UCAS reported final placed applicant data for international undergraduate students at UK institutions, it confirmed a significant post-Brexit drop in the EU market. Placed applicants from EU countries declined by 56% in 2021, down to just 12,920 students from 29,920 in 2020.1

The good news: Placed applicants from non-EU markets rose by 5%. 46,610 non-EU international undergraduate students landed in the UK in 2021, accounting for nearly 4 in 5 international undergraduate students coming on shore.

Continuing to grow enrollments from non-EU markets is critical to the long-term success of the UK higher ed sector. With this in mind, I’ll be spending today’s ApplyInsights looking at what students from some high-growth-potential markets are looking for when selecting a university.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • While student sentiment toward the UK as a destination has plummeted in the EU, most non-EU students still have a favourable view of the UK.
  • Cost of living is the top concern among students across all five of the UK government’s top priority markets for expanding education export opportunities.
  • The Graduate Immigration Route (GIR) represents a massive opportunity for UK institutions to compete with Canada in markets such as India that prize post-study work and immigration pathways.

I’ll be focusing on India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. These are the five priority markets in which the UK’s International Education Champion, Sir Steve Smith, is focusing his efforts to grow education export opportunities, as laid out in the UK’s International Education Strategy.

The UK as a Welcoming Destination

The QS International Student Survey (ISS) is the world’s largest pre-enrollment survey of international students. It’s chock full of interesting insights on how prospective international students are making decisions. The 2021 edition surveyed more than 105,000 students from 191 countries and territories.

QS research has repeatedly shown that international students seek out countries that they see as welcoming to international students. In fact, students place more importance on this than factors that institutions often think of as more important, such as reputation and rankings:Bar chart showing the factors students think are most important when choosing a country to study in. Examined in detail below.These results are key for institutions to keep in mind as they target international students outside the EU. Government and institutional efforts to show students that they are welcome in the UK have the potential to shift expectations in a hurry.

The launch of the Graduate Immigration Route (GIR) is a great example of this. The GIR represents a critical opportunity for the UK higher ed industry to show students that they are welcome to study, and stay, in the UK. But institutions need to ensure students understand the implications of this new pathway to permanent residency.

Student Sentiment in the UK Government’s Target Markets Remains High Post-Brexit

Post-Brexit, QS found a considerable drop in student sentiment toward the UK across the EU. However, this was not the case in most non-EU markets. In fact, students in the government’s five priority markets largely see the UK as becoming more welcoming:Bar chart showing students' viewpoints on whether the UK is becoming more or less welcoming to international students. Examined in detail below.The numbers for Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, in particular, suggest there’s a real opportunity for institutions to grab a larger share of those growing markets. According to QS, these favourable results are driven in part by the “established community of international students within the UK, which many prospective students anticipate will create a welcoming environment for them.”

Universities should work to make prospective students aware of their ties to these communities where they exist. For institutions just beginning to break into these markets, consider sharing stories from student ambassadors from these countries—whether directly through student outreach or indirectly through marketing materials—to help prospective students envision a connection to the university.

Student Decision-Making Priorities in the UK Government’s Target Markets

QS asked students from the UK government’s target markets about their top priorities when choosing a university, as well as their top five concerns about studying abroad.

My #1 takeaway: Cost of living is the top concern for all five priority markets. Universities need to consider how they can best assure these students that life in the UK is affordable.

Let’s also take a deep dive into some market-specific insights.

IndiaIndia stands out among the government’s top target markets for its current market share, and by extension, institutions’ familiarity with the market. The explosive growth of Canada’s Post-Graduate Work Permit Program among Indian students shows that these students are highly motivated by post-study work opportunities and immigration pathways. The GIR represents a massive opportunity for UK institutions to compete with Canada for footing in a market that is large and still growing.

When asked to give their top five priorities when choosing a university, Indian students named high-quality teaching (57%) and scholarships (50%). A high graduate employment rate (45%) is also a factor for Indian students in a way it isn’t for students from other markets.

A full 75% of Indian students see cost of living as a concern about going abroad. Other top concerns include getting a job (62%) and the availability of scholarships (60%).

In short, Indian students are extremely concerned about affordability. Outreach to these students should focus on post-graduation work opportunities and scholarship offerings. Institutions located in more affordable regions should leverage this advantage, as well.

61% of Indian students surveyed indicated that a careers advice service was among the university support services they would value the most.

IndonesiaThe fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia has long been a target for UK institutions.

The ISS shows that Indonesian students are particularly focused on scholarship opportunities. 62% of students named scholarships as a top priority when choosing a university, the highest result in the survey. An identical 62% listed scholarship availability among their top concerns. Universities should consider designing scholarships specifically for Indonesian students and marketing them aggressively.

Along with scholarship considerations, 57% of Indonesian students said that it is a priority for them that their chosen university is welcoming to international students. This underscores the importance of the above findings for the market.Nigeria

Uniquely among the UK government’s priority markets, Nigerian students indicated that their top priority in choosing a university is that it is welcoming to international students (65%). Universities that have large existing Nigerian student cohorts or a significant Nigerian cultural presence in their communities should leverage these facts in targeting this rapidly expanding market. Scholarships (59%) and high-quality teaching (57%) are the next most important factors Nigerian students consider.

Concerns about cost of living (77%) are as high or higher in Nigeria than in any other priority market.2 Scholarship availability is next, at 67%. Like Indian students, Nigerian students are particularly motivated by concerns about affordability, even relative to other markets.Saudi Arabia

In nearly all cases, Saudi students who study abroad do so under the generous King’s Scholarship Program. Given this, Saudi students’ priorities skew academic, rather than financial. High-quality teaching tops the list (61%), followed by whether the country is welcoming to international students (57%). Reputation (46%) and rankings (37%) are smaller considerations, but still important.

Fewer Saudi students cited cost of living as a concern about studying abroad, but it remained the #1 consideration, at 69%. Finding accommodation is also a concern (55%). Universities would be well served to share information on on-campus housing in marketing materials targeting Saudi students.

Check out our previous ApplyInsights article on the growing student recruitment potential in Saudi Arabia.

VietnamLike Indian and Saudi students, Vietnamese students indicated that high-quality teaching is their top priority (58%) when choosing a university. QS recommends UK institutions share their TEF rating with Vietnamese students to communicate the calibre of their teaching.

Scholarships are central to Vietnamese students’ decision-making, as well. 55% of students indicated that scholarship offerings were among their key criteria for choosing a university, and 62% of students listed scholarship availability as a top concern.

When asked what support services they would most value, 61% of Vietnamese students said a careers advice service. While just 30% named a money advice service, this was much higher than in results from the other priority markets and reflects Vietnamese students’ overarching concerns about finances.

How to Target Students in These Growing Markets

As the UK international education industry moves further into the post-Brexit world, competition for non-EU students will only get tougher. UK universities need to pursue any edge they can get to ensure they’re competitive in these growing markets.

Regardless of what market they’re targeting, universities located in regions with a more affordable cost of living should highlight this, as cost of living is the #1 concern for students in all markets.

Beyond cost considerations, here’s my market-by-market summary of criteria to highlight when targeting students from the UK government’s priority markets:

  • India: Teaching quality, scholarship offerings, post-graduation work opportunities and connections with industry, and the Graduate Immigration Route (GIR)
  • Indonesia: Scholarship offerings, existing Indonesian student community or cultural presence, and efforts to make international students feel welcome
  • Nigeria: Existing Nigerian student community or cultural presence, teaching quality, scholarship offerings, and efforts to make international students feel welcome
  • Saudi Arabia: Teaching quality and reputation, housing options, existing Saudi student community or cultural presence, and rankings
  • Vietnam: Teaching quality, scholarship offerings, and career and financial support services

Published: October 25, 2021

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Meti BasiriMeti Basiri
Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
Meti is driven by the belief that education is a right, not a privilege. He leads the International Recruitment, Partner Relations, and Marketing teams at ApplyBoard, working to make education accessible to people around the world. Meti has been instrumental in building partnerships with 1,500+ educational institutions across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Working with over 7,500 international recruitment partners, ApplyBoard has assisted more than 200,000 students in their study abroad journey. Follow Meti on LinkedIn for more access to ApplyInsights and key industry trends.


1. Statistical Releases – Daily Clearing Analysis 2021. UCAS, 2021.

2. 77% of Vietnamese students also indicated that cost of living was a top concern.