The United Kingdom has established itself as one of the top destinations for students from around the world, with the number of international students in the UK growing from 216,565 in the 2000/1 academic year to 605,130 international students in 2020/21.

Since the UK officially left the EU in January 2020, the demographics of international students in the UK has shifted, as students adjust to a new set of rules regarding visa requirements and higher costs. Notably, while the number of students applying from the EU has dropped significantly since Brexit, there has also been a marked increase in applicants hailing from the United States.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of EU-domiciled students who applied to UK institutions using the June 30th deadline experienced a steep decline of over 40%, from around 49,650 applicants in 2020 down to 28,400 in 2021, according to data made publicly available by UCAS. Meanwhile, the number of US-based students who applied to study in the UK using the same deadline increased by a factor of approximately 50%, from roughly 5,000 applicants in June 2020 to over 7,600 in June 2021.

Evidently, the drop in EU student applicants post-Brexit can be attributed to higher tuition costs and the introduction of visa application processes for those students since the UK’s departure from the EU. Before Brexit, EU students were freely permitted to travel to the UK for work or study without a visa and home fee status for EU students guaranteed that tuition fees for these students would not exceed £9,250 per year. The UK’s departure from the European Union means that EU students must now apply as international students, paying tens of thousands of pounds in tuition fees while facing stricter visa application processes.

At the same time, reasons for the dramatic increase in US-based applicants to UK institutions post-Brexit are less obvious. Admittedly, this 50% jump in applications from US students occurred only very recently, and full-year data for 2021/22 applicants is not yet available. Even so, the increase is far more, percentage-wise, than increases in students from China (a little over 16%, from 24,430 to 28,490 applicants) or India (just under 30%, from 7,640 to 9,930 applicants), the top two countries of origin for international students in the UK. (source?) One possible explanation for the sharp uptick in US students looking to study in the UK might be a growing perception among Americans that as the UK strays away from Europe, its cultural and political ties to the US are growing stronger.

One company that has made note of these changes is Favisbook, a US-based firm which annually provides visa-related services to 3,000 American students studying abroad. Kareem Dus, Favisbook’s founder, said that the number of Americans using the company’s services to study in the UK has risen by around 39% since the country officially left the EU in 2020.

“This is a growing market for us, so we’re actively monitoring the changing economic and regulatory landscape in order to forecast how demand for these visas will evolve in the near future,” said Dus. “We’ve certainly noticed an increase in orders for UK visas from the American side.”

Dus explained that his company engages in data-driven research in order to understand how geopolitical shifts influence customer behavior. He believes the recent spike in American applicants for UK student visas is an early indicator of an ongoing geopolitical trend, one that has seen US-UK ties strengthening as the relationship between the EU and its Western allies has frayed:

“Diplomatic relations between the US and the EU have been in decline for some time,” said Dus. “There have been notable disputes recently involving both France and Germany, the two countries that exert the most economic and political influence over the bloc. Given that tensions between the US and the EU are rising alongside weakening UK-EU relations post-Brexit, it seems probable that the US and a newly independent UK would develop stronger diplomatic and cultural ties in the near future.”

These stronger ties, Dus explained, would likely result in new policies aimed at increasing freedom of movement between the two countries for students as well as professionals. Dus cited ongoing trade negotiations between the US and the UK as a possible precursor to the development of a new work visa program between the two countries, similar to existing visa agreements put in place by the US with Canada and Australia: “The US and the UK have been negotiating a new trade agreement since May 2020, a few months after the UK became independent from Europe. It’s perhaps too early to say, but if you look at historical trade agreements between the US and its allies, notably NAFTA with Canada and the FTA with Australia, both of these agreements included provisions for visas that would allow professionals from a wide range of categories to travel and work between the two countries. We believe there’s a high probability that the ongoing negotiations between the US and the UK will result in a similar outcome.”

The effects of these diplomatic changes are not limited to policy changes, explained Dus. Recent public opinion polls highlight changing perceptions between populations as well: “Polls show that, in recent years, Americans’ perception of the EU has declined, particularly among Republicans, while only one in five Europeans still believes that Americans share their cultural values. Furthermore, a 2021 poll demonstrated that 76% of Americans viewed the US-UK alliance as more important today than it was five years ago. This is up from 60% of Americans who responded this way the year before. Taken together, this data seems to indicate that the US-UK bond is strengthening along with, and perhaps directly in reaction to, the alienation of Europe from its historical allies.”

While tourism-related travel, which fell sharply at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels, Dus believes that as the dangers of COVID subside globally, more people will look to travel for leisure. “Obviously, the recent rise in American students travelling to the UK occurred in the midst of a global pandemic, despite the fact that many people remain concerned about whether or not it’s safe to travel. So clearly this rise in students was an indication that many people in America, particularly young people, are already feeling ready to travel again for educational purposes, and a growing portion of them are choosing the UK as their destination.”

For their part, Dus and his team are already making preparations for what they see as an inevitable post-pandemic demand for travel. “As the pandemic recedes around the world, and the number of global travelers returns to pre-pandemic levels, we think the number of tourists traveling from the US to the UK will follow the same trend that we’ve seen with student visa applications, and that perhaps the UK will outpace other countries as a preferred destination for American tourism. In short, it’s likely that the UK will ultimately be a winner in this race, by reaping the economic benefits of an influx of Americans hoping to work, study and travel in the UK.”