Managing the uptick of international student applications in the UK

“The explosion of international applications has intensified the number of verification checks needed and made for a challenging landscape”

The UK has long been an attractive place to study for international students and, as the latest figures show, the trend looks set to continue. However, managing the implications of the UK meeting international student targets a decade before the deadline has undoubtedly piled pressure on university admission teams.

The explosion of international applications in the wake of the introduction of the new Graduate Route Visa, plus a general widening of the recruitment net, has intensified the number of verification checks needed and made for a challenging landscape.

So many students are keen to come that the number of our students has tripled at Aston University since 2019. Our international intake used to be around the 700 to 800 mark, whereas now it is 2,000 to 3,000, so we’ve experienced many of the demands a rise in application numbers can bring.

We wanted to scale up our capacity to process the number of student applications using automation. We also wanted to improve our existing process to provide more support to students who need it and give more autonomy for those who don’t.

Reducing workload

Attracting prospective students from a wider range of countries enriches student life for everyone, but it also comes with an increased administrative burden.

All institutions take a rigorous approach to compliance to ensure offers are only made to students whose reasons to apply are genuine. But weeding out the bogus from the bona fide becomes a more laborious task as application volumes increase.

Carrying out the necessary legal checks and requirements can be time consuming so it’s worth exploring ways to lift the weight of administration away from staff.

Take student bank statements, for example. At Aston University, we’ve automated the process of checking statements, which means only those which contain errors or do not comply with the requirements are flagged for our staff to examine manually. This has saved hours of time and reduced the number of students who need to be followed up or provided with specialist support and advice.

Automation has helped minimise errors that can often result in a visa application being denied. But there are other ways to improve the student experience too.

Information in students’ hands

Applying to university is a big decision for anyone, but international students will often be crossing continents to further their education. Along with the emotional, social, and financial investment students make in coming to the UK, there are also visa conditions and requirements to navigate.

Giving students up to date information on the status of their applications can minimise anxiety. We do this by providing all our overseas students with online access to a portal which allows them, or their agent if they have one, to track and manage their applications digitally, every step of the way.

Students are automatically prompted to gather and upload the relevant documents they need and they can see how their application is progressing any time of the day or night so they don’t feel left in the dark. The portal has minimised the risk of visa refusal due to incorrect or insufficient documentation too.

With greater automation of the student onboarding process and the self-service student portal, which are delivered through the Enroly platform, we have reduced the number of incoming phone and email enquiries from students by 62%. It’s helped free up time for staff to focus on dealing with more complex immigration issues and students have all the information they need in front of them to feel more confident and supported throughout the application process.

Targets smashed

With the latest figures showing that the target to attract 600,000 overseas students to the UK’s universities by 2030 was met by the 2020/21 academic year, institutions have had more compliance and increased funding source checks to manage, alongside an avalanche of paperwork.

The surge has tripled the number of international students coming to Aston University since 2019. But with a slicker system in place to manage the onboarding process, we’ve welcomed the growth in students efficiently and successfully and enriched our whole learning community as a result.

About the author: Christina Matthews is director of student experience at Aston University.