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Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2020/21 - Where students come from and go to study

Statistical Bulletin SB262

Where are students in HE studying?

In 2020/21, 281 HE providers reported student data to HESA. More information on what this means in terms of coverage of the higher education sector is given in the about this release section. Figure 7 shows the number of students studying at each HE provider in the UK in 2020/21, with a breakdown by the geographic location of students' permanent home address prior to study (known as domicile).

In 2020/21, The Open University maintained its position as the provider with the most student enrolments. From 2019/20 there was an increase of 22,830 or 18% in student enrolments at The Open University. See the 2019/20 open data by provider for details.

In the top five providers, University College London retained second position above The University of Manchester followed by Coventry University in fourth place. The Nottingham Trent University gained 3,210 students compared with the previous year, moving up from sixth in 2019/20.

Figure 7 - HE student enrolments by HE provider and domicile

Academic years 2020/21


HESA does not collect information on UK students who go abroad to study, but more information on these students can be found through United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Where do HE students come from?

  • Proportions of students from outside the UK varied by level and mode of study. Full-time postgraduates had the highest percentage from non-European Union countries.

Figure 8 - HE student enrolments by level of study, mode of study and domicile

Academic years 2020/21

  • Students domiciled in the UK made up the largest proportion of enrolments in 2020/21.
  • UK domiciled first year student enrolments increased by 13% compared to 2019/20. Over the same time period, non-UK domiciled first year student enrolments increased by 4%.
  • Between 2019/20 and 2020/21 there was an increase of 48,500 non-UK student enrolments. This was largely driven by an increase in non-EU students.
What is ‘First year marker’?

This option restricts the table to only show students who were on the first year of their course. This is useful for restricting data to the newest cohort of entrants. See the year of study definitions for more detail.

Figure 9 - HE student enrolments by domicile

Academic years 2016/17 to 2020/21


The cross-border flows of first year students from the UK shows that the majority of students stay in their home country, although those from Wales and Northern Ireland were more likely to cross borders than those from England and Scotland. The proportion of movements remains roughly the same year on year in general. There was a slight decrease in the percentage of students from Wales enrolling at Welsh providers in 2020/21 compared to 2016/17.

Figure 10 - UK domiciled first year HE student enrolments by domicile and country of HE provider

Academic years 2016/17 to 2020/21

Domicile Country of HE provider


Figure 11 shows the 2020/21 ranking of the top 10 European Union and non-European countries of domicile (excluding the UK) for HE student enrolments and the change since 2016/17. Due to overlapping data points on these charts, zoom functionality has been inbuilt.

Within the European Union:

  • More students from Italy enrolled at UK providers in 2020/21 than any other EU country.
  • For providers in England, Romania has replaced France for second position in student enrolment numbers from the EU.
  • In 2020/21 more students from Ireland had enrolled than any other EU country at providers in Scotland.

Outside the European Union:

  • China sent more students to the UK than any other overseas country. In 2020/21, 32% of all non-EU students were from China. The number of students from China has increased by 48,225 or 50% over the five-year period 2016/17 to 2020/21.
  • While the numbers of student enrolments from India are not as high as from China, there has been a notable increase of 67,660 over the five-year period. Large increases were observed in 2019/20 and 2020/21. Students from India represent 19% of all non-EU enrolments in 2020/21.
  • Students from Nigeria place third in enrolments from outside the EU, but this and other countries are more in line with the numbers of enrolments from EU countries.
  • Student numbers from Malaysia saw a decline of 30% over the five years, dropping below enrolments from Nigeria and Pakistan.

Click and drag to highlight an area on the chart below to zoom in. Right-click to reset the view.

Figure 11 - Top ten EU and non-EU countries of domicile (excluding the UK) in 2020/21 for HE student enrolments

Academic years 2016/17 and 2020/21


What students are registered at UK HE providers, but studying overseas?

Figure 12 shows information from the HESA Aggregate offshore record, capturing students studying wholly outside the UK who are either registered with a UK HE provider or who are studying for an award of a UK HE provider. Notable changes to the record in 2019/20 mean this data should be interpreted with caution. Further information on coverage is given in the notes section of this release.

  • Oxford Brookes changed their reporting practices for the 2019/20 academic year around which students they include in their Aggregate Offshore return. This led to a drop of 256,450 students between 2018/19 and 2019/20 for this provider, resulting in a significant drop to the overall number of student enrolments based wholly overseas.
  • Student enrolments increased by 51,110 between 2019/20 and 2020/21.
  • In 2020/21 distance, flexible or distributed learning was the most popular type of provision for those studying in the EU. Whereas, for those studying outside the EU, other arrangement including collaborative provision saw the highest number of enrolments.
  • Over the five-year time series, postgraduate study in EU countries has increased year-on-year. Enrolments for postgraduate study outside the EU has increased since 2018/19.

Figure 12 - HE student enrolments based wholly overseas by location and type of provision

Academic years 2016/17 to 2020/21


National Statistic

Release date

25 January 2022, 9:30



Release frequency

Annual - view all releases (1998/99 onwards)


Children, education and skills

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HESA, 95 Promenade, Cheltenham, GL50 1HZ

Press enquiries

+44 (0) 1242 388 513 (option 6), [email protected]

Public enquiries

+44 (0) 1242 388 513 (option 2), [email protected]


Luke Perrott

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