Australia is Overtaking the UK for International Students

Australia is Overtaking the UK for International Students

Sabrina Collier

Updated October 4, 2023 Updated October 04

Australia is becoming the second most-popular study destination with overseas students, replacing the UK in this position, according to research from University College London (UCL)’s Centre for Global Higher Education.

Australia has been consistently rising in popularity with international students, having welcomed more than 600,000 in 2017, a 13 percent growth on the year before. An increasing number of these came from China, India, Nepal and Brazil.

The official figures on student numbers from UNESCO will not be released until the end of year, but UCL’s researchers believe Australia may have already overtaken the UK. This is a stark contrast to 2015, when the UK received 136,000 more international students than Australia.

The Brexit Effect?

But how much is the UK’s decision to exit the European Union a factor in these changes? UK universities actually reported a surge in applications from EU students in 2018, which can be attributed to a ‘last -minute rush’ by these students to get a place at university before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. These students, who will begin their courses in September this year, had also received the assurance from the UK government that they would be entitled to the same fees and funding as home students, even after the UK leaves the EU. It was also recently confirmed by the government that EU students commencing their studies in autumn 2019 will be entitled to the same fees and funding as home students.

With this confirmed, it seems likely that there won’t be a drop in applications to UK universities in the 2019 academic year. However, some international students appear to be questioning how friendly the UK is, perhaps making other study destinations more appealing.

The UK government is keen to retain visa-free travel for EU nationals (and is hoping this will be reciprocated for UK nationals traveling to the EU) following March 2019, but there is currently no indication on whether new EU students will need to pay international tuition fee rates from 2020 onwards.

UK universities have been campaigning for the government to remove international students from net migration targets, but there are no plans to do so, despite a recent report indicating that they bring more than £20 billion to the country's economy every year.

A spokeswoman for the British Council said that international students are "an immense source of long-term influence and soft power for the UK".

She also said the UK was competing with countries with "welcoming visa policies" and "comprehensive international education strategies". This makes it important to “reinforce and open up international channels for the UK”.

Canada also rising in popularity

As well as Australia, Canada is also catching up with the UK and taking a rising proportion of the lucrative international student market - the QS Applicant Survey 2018 found that Canada has replaced the UK as the second most-popular study destination with prospective students in Africa and the Middle East. With students from Asia-Pacific, Australia replaced the UK as the second most-popular study destination, slipping down to fourth.

The author of UCL’s report, Professor Simon Marginson, says “What we are seeing is a seismic shift in the global student market. UK higher education is still highly valued internationally, but the government has held down the growth of international student numbers for five years, by limiting new student numbers and post-study work visas. Meanwhile, competitor nations are strongly promoting their international education.”

Would you choose Australia or Canada over the UK? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was originally published in July 2018 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

The former Assistant Editor of, Sabrina wrote and edited articles to guide students from around the world on a wide range of topics. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University and grew up in Staffordshire, UK. 

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