Provost's View: How UCL student recruitment is holding up amid uncertainty
4 May 2017
UCL's strapline as London's Global University can be interpreted in a variety of different ways - our commitment to addressing some of the most pressing global issues through research, our vast network of partners and collaborations around the world to name but two.
But, arguably, the most visible sign of being a global university is the international community here on campus among the staff and student body.
International students have found themselves caught in political crosswinds in recent times. Non-EU students are still included in the net migration figures despite arguments from various quarters that they should be removed.
The triggering of Article 50 has created some uncertainty for the EU students enrolled with us and those planning to join us (although this week's announcement that EU students who join us in 2018/19 will continue to pay tuition fees at the home rate and have access to UK government funding for the duration of their studies is welcome news).
Now seems a good time to reflect on our own international student recruitment in the light of the changes and challenges of the international recruitment scene.
UCL is the leading UK recruiter of international students. Our enrolments have grown not just in actual numbers but also relative to our competitors across the UK and, most importantly, in the Russell Group.
This has been achieved against a backdrop of static international enrolments in the UK overall, which demonstrates the strength of competition from around the world, as well as the effect of UK policy changes to visas and particularly post-study work visas.
Our position at the top was cemented by the merger with the IOE, which also had a very diverse student body. More than 40% of our students now come from outside the UK and the latest HESA data confirm that, among UK universities, we attract students from the greatest range of countries.
Indeed, one objective of our Global Engagement Strategy is to continue to diversify the countries from which we recruit our students.
As UCL has the highest number of EU students among UK universities, we have been closely monitoring developments since the referendum result to see what the impact has been on interest in studying here.
Bucking sector trends
So far, the picture is more positive than we might have anticipated back in June 2016. Against sector trends, our undergraduate applications from EU students have actually risen this year.
Increased applications do not automatically lead to increased enrolments, but it is nonetheless encouraging that UCL has remained a popular choice among prospective EU students.
This has not come about by accident. We have increased our recruitment activity in the EU rather than scaled it back, which means we can measure directly the attitudes of EU students to studying in the UK and UCL specifically.
This gives us valuable qualitative evidence about the concerns that they have and allows us to reassure them that our university is still the right place for them. UCL's strong signals about the importance of the EU and its nationals are certainly playing a role in maintaining our attractiveness among prospective EU students.
Beyond the EU, attitudes to studying in the UK from international students have undoubtedly been affected by the strength and tone of the immigration debate in the UK, with the perception that the country does not welcome international students.
To counteract this, we have widely pushed the message in all our recruitment activity that we are immensely proud that UCL has the most diverse student body of all the Russell Group universities and will do all we can to maintain it.
However as, like most of our UK competitors, much of our international student growth has been driven by enrolments from China, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.
To this end, we have student recruitment activity going on in 55 countries - which is set to grow further in 2017/18 as we seek to ensure that our student body is as broad as possible.
Our central student recruitment marketing team has been reconfigured to include colleagues from the UK undergraduate and IOE international recruitment teams. This gives us the maximum reach across all our audiences for the first time.
Pooling our collective expertise
Student recruitment and marketing is far from being a uniquely central activity. With knowledge and experience in faculties and departments as well, it has made sense to make student recruitment the focus of the pilot Communities of Practice group.
This is bringing together colleagues across the whole institution with the aim of sharing knowledge and developing best practices.
Once fully established, it will ensure that student recruitment marketing will be on an even sounder footing, better coordinated and with coherent strategies that harness the expertise across the institution. This will deliver the flexibility to respond effectively to the recruitment environment.
UCL has been phenomenally successful in its international student recruitment, but we are sailing into headwinds that will make maintaining our position ever harder.
The current climate means that maintaining both growth and diversity is going to be increasingly difficult, but the knowledge that we have and the changes that we are making mean that we are ready for that challenge.
A major contribution to UCL life
I would just like to end by reflecting on how important international students are to UCL's activity and ethos.
We were founded in 1826 with the principle of opening up higher education to those who had been excluded from it for reasons of religion or social background, thus enabling students and staff from around the world to participate in UCL life early in our history.
Many staff will be familiar with inspiring stories such as the Choshu Five, a group of young Japanese men who made a perilous journey to the UK to study at UCL from 1863 and returned to lead the transformation of their government and country.
Today, our international students enrich UCL life in countless ways, ranging from the leadership of UCL's international student societies through to the invaluable contribution of different cultural perspectives to research and intellectual debate.
We will redouble our efforts to ensure that they feel welcome and continue to come to us as a place to study and learn in a world-leading, research-intensive university.
President & Provost