Applications from China fell -4.2% compared to last year, but still surpassed pre-pandemic levels (27,710 in 2023 vs. 21,250 in 2020) and were more than double five years ago.
In addition, there were 5,680 applications from Hong Kong students, down from 6,010 last year.
The drop is believed to be partly due to travel restrictions that were only recently lifted in China when applications close in January 2023.
“Despite the challenges of Covid and disrupted learning in China and Hong Kong, the UK has the second highest number on record [equal consideration data deadline] applicants from China,” said Chris Kirk, director of UCAS International. “We expect the recent lifting of travel restrictions to lead to an increase in applications between now and the summer.”
Jon Santangelo, spokesman and chief consultant for Chinese study abroad umbrella company BOSSA, said this could be “the inevitable start of a long-term decline that has accelerated given the changing economic and demographic situation” in China, but the trend is not UK specific.
Indian applications increased by 5.4% to a new peak of 9,130 students, while Nigerian applications increased by 23.1% to 2,930.
Although not all international students apply through UCAS, the trends mirror those in the recently released HESA 2021/22 data which showed onslaught in the number of Indian and Nigerian students enrolled in British universities.
“Reforms like the Graduate Route are starting to pay off”
Hollie Chandler, head of policy (higher education) at the Russell Group, said growing demand from countries such as India and Nigeria showed that “reforms like the Graduate Route are starting to pay off”.
The British government is debating whether to cut the length of time foreign graduates can stay and work in the UK from two years to six months, a move widely contested in the sector.
The other top non-EU countries are the US (5,800), Singapore (3,610) and the United Arab Emirates (3,570). All these regions saw an increase in the number of applications.
Applications from EU countries fell by 2% year-on-year, with the numbers less than half of what they were before the Brexit vote in 2016. Some EU countries saw growth last year, including Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Netherlands.
Ireland remained the top source country in the EU with 5,010 applications (up from 5,100 in 2022), followed by France with 2,690 applications (up from 2,700 in 2022).
Total applications through the platform, including UK students, fell by -2.3% but were higher than pre-pandemic levels.
“This is another complex cycle with a myriad of global and national factors influencing demand, all in the context of a growing demographic and high employment rates,” said UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant.