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Why Are International Students Avoiding the US and UK?

By Craig O

Updated June 9, 2022 Updated June 9, 2022

Today’s QS World University Rankings 2020 reveal a disturbing trend for both UK and US universities. Despite continuing to be home to the world’s very best unis, both the UK and US see an overall decline in university performance.

Looking closer at the indicators used to compile our ranking, one significant factor in this decline has been the low scores universities in both countries have received for their percentage of international faculty and international students.

Intended as a measure to show the level of diversity at institutions, this poor performance suggests both UK and US universities are becoming less appealing to faculty and students from other countries.

Below is a comparison of how the top universities in the UK scored for international faculty and international students over the last two years.

QS World University Rankings 2020: Decline in International Students

United States


Int’l Student Score 2019

Int’l Student Score 2020

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)



Stanford University



Harvard University



California Institute of Technology (Caltech)



University of Chicago



United Kingdom

University of Oxford



University of Cambridge



UCL (University College London)



Imperial College London



University of Edinburgh



This trend continues far beyond the very top universities in both countries. So, what’s turning international students away from two of the historically most popular study destinations?

Work restrictions

One of the biggest attractions to studying in a foreign country is the possibility to work in the same country after graduation. This is especially true of the UK and US, two countries where graduates can expect to earn a significant income depending on their degree.

However, it’s become significantly harder for overseas students to stay on after graduation for work in the UK. Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May took a hardline approach to immigration and restricted international students to just six months of work after finishing their studies.

One of the contenders to replace May as PM, Sajid Javid, has said he wants to make it easier for overseas students to work in the UK, but with Brexit consuming all political debate there’s too much uncertainty about if and when this will happen.

Brexit has also left EU students – previously confident in their ability to remain in the UK for work – uncertain of where they stand. This is unlikely to improve until Brexit is resolved, and long-term guarantees can be offered to EU citizens.

While the visa available to students in the US is more attractive, allowing them to work for a longer period after graduation, the latest data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services shows a steady rise in the number of visa applications being denied.

In October-December last year, a quarter of all H1-B visa applications were denied. By contrast, the rate of denied applications in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency was just six per cent.


As well as uncertainty over their future earnings, international students are also facing more expensive tuition fees than they have previously. In some cases, this is due to decisions taken by individual institutions. For example, the University of Oxford announced earlier this year that international tuition fees will rise by over 10 percent for more than 40 undergraduate courses.

Brexit has also led to a lack of clarity about how tuition fees will change for EU citizens. While students enrolling in 2020/21 are guaranteed to pay the same fees as domestic students, no information has been given for students beyond that.

It’s not just tuition fees that are getting more expensive either. In the US, the Department of Homeland Security has increased the fees it charges international students and exchange visitors for processing their paperwork.

It’s understandable that this, combined with the aggressive posturing of an American president who has labelled African countries “shitholes” and made racist comments about Mexicans and Muslims, is making America feel less welcoming to the brightest minds in other countries.

Political tensions

Donald Trump’s blow-hard invective is having other impacts too, with education becoming a victim to diplomatic spats. For instance, the Chinese government has taken the unusual step of warning its students to not apply for visas to study in the US.

China is the biggest contributor of undergraduate and graduate international students to the US, making up one-third of all foreign students in 2017/18. However, diplomatic tensions between the two countries over trade have led to the Chinese government taking this extraordinary measure and universities are now expecting to receive fewer applications from Chinese students in the years ahead.

Can the situation improve?

Obviously, there’s no need for UK and US universities to completely panic. For now, they remain some of the most reputable institutions in the world and that will always be a significant pull factor.

However, the dangers of losing ground to universities elsewhere cannot be overstated and the drift of Chinese students to other destinations, for instance Australia, is likely to have far-reaching impacts. It will be fascinating to see whether this trend continues next year.

This article was originally published in June 2019 . It was last updated in June 2022

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Written by

As Head of Content, Craig is responsible for all articles and guides published across TopUniversities and TopMBA. He has nearly 10 years of experience writing for a student audience and extensive knowledge of universities and study programs around the world.

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