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Despite the drop in international student applications, elite universities in the UK remain highly s

For many years, the top Universities in the UK have been the source of worldwide admiration. Every year, a considerable number of international students come to the UK to pursue higher education, with many aspiring to secure admission to renowned Universities like Oxford and Cambridge. In the QS World University Rankings 2023, Oxford and Cambridge ranked #2 and #4 respectively, while in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2023, they secured #1 and #3 positions. It's worth noting that while the UK has several outstanding Universities, the academic eminence and long-established reputations of Oxford (founded 1096) and Cambridge (founded 1209) make them especially appealing to employers seeking their graduates. This has made studying at these prestigious institutions even more alluring to international students.

The stats

According to the UK’s University Central Admissions System (UCAS), for 10% of international students, the dream of studying abroad starts before their 11th birthday. In UCAS data released this year, international applications are predicted to rise by 46% to 208,500 by 2026, so the landscape will continue to be highly competitive. Yet, this year has seen a record drop in the number of Oxbridge applications this year (5% Cambridge, 2.6% Oxford). However, Clare Marchant, Chief Executive at UCAS, is not concerned and commented: “Whilst applications have been very resilient throughout the pandemic, the robust demand from China, India and Hong Kong shows the enduring appeal of our world-class universities.”

Application numbers to both have, in general, and not surprisingly, gone down for three main reasons: Brexit, the Cost of Living and the Pandemic. Applications through UCAS in 2021 showed 40% fewer students from the EU applying to UK Universities. One of the reasons is that because of Brexit European students can no longer claim home-fee status or access tuition fee loans and instead face paying international tuition fees of up to £40,000 per year. The cost of living has also upped student’s expenditure; with the UK’s inflation rate hitting a 40-year high of 10.1%, students are feeling the crunch paying for food, rent and utilities.

Higher acceptance than US Ivy League

It is no surprise why Oxford and Cambridge Universities are so competitive and desirable. As the English-speaking world’s oldest Universities, they have an incredible reputation for academics and research. The attractions for domestic and international students are clear, combined with their unique “College ” system, the very personalised teaching model, and post graduate job opportunities. Over 20,000 students attend Oxford, with around 40% being international students. Cambridge has over 18,000 students with six academic schools, over one hundred libraries, more than eighty sports offerings, and many extracurricular activities and societies. Although it’s no secret that getting an offer from Oxbridge University is complex, the University of Oxford typically has a 17% acceptance rate, with Cambridge a little higher at 21%. These rates are higher than some Ivy League universities, such as Harvard and Columbia — which typically only accept around 5% of their applicants. Still, Oxbridge universities practise a thorough screening process for its applicants, meaning students must pass pre-assessment tests and be invited to interview before being offered. There is also the question of the number of places available: Oxford has 12,510 undergraduate places – 3,300 places per year – 23,000 applied in 2020, and Cambridge has 20,426 applications, 3,997 places – typically having six applications per place, and students will be competing with some of the brightest students in the world to win a place. With students from over 160 nationalities studying there, the demand will always be higher than the places available.

Securing a place at Oxbridge

So, what can potential students do to set themselves apart? Stellar academic grades are a given when applying to Oxbridge, but applications must shine beyond this to be in with a chance of securing an interview. My advice to parents and students on other attributes to note beyond the grades and to make an application stand out would be to focus on the following:

  • Demonstrate intellectual curiosity

  • Show a mature understanding of your subject

  • Cite any extra reading and additional courses that are relevant to highlight your key areas of interest.

  • The admissions tutors are most interested in your intellectual ability and passion for the subject. We have worked with outstanding students who have undertaken independent research projects on wave energy, published poetry collections, and are Olympiad maths champions.

Education is one of life’s most important investments, and international students who choose a UK degree will be well on their way to a secure, rewarding, and exciting future. That is why thousands of international students choose to study in the UK every year and why our graduates are among the most employable in the world; Oxford students alone have been employed by over 145 companies, progressing faster – and earning more – than peers educated elsewhere.

Fiona loves education, starting with her education at Rugby School and then at St Andrew’s University. Fiona has been a featured speaker at dozens of education conferences across Europe and the Middle East, including GESS and The Independent Schools Show.

Fiona McKenzie is Head of Education at Carfax Education and leads a team that expertly helps hundreds of students get into the top 50 UK and US universities.


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