5 things you need to know about the Indian student market
2 February 2023
India is projected to become the world’s most populous country this year. With more than half of its population under the age of 25, the number of Indian students is rising fast – and many are looking at studying overseas.
Bernadette Cochonat, Head of International Sales at Unite Students, visited India in 2022 to learn more. Here, she shares some of her insights on this huge group of students, their expectations for student accommodation, and how their journey to the UK compares to that of their Chinese counterparts.
1. Indian student numbers are rapidly growing in the UK, and will continue to do so
In 2019, the UK government published its international student strategy, which set out a target of recruiting 600,000 international students by 2030. This target has already been met, even if the government is currently reviewing international student numbers. Here at Unite Students, international students make up almost 4 in 10 of the students who live with us.
But in this time, the make-up of the international student population has changed significantly. Demand from China – the largest UK international student market – remains strong. However, EU student numbers have dropped significantly since Brexit, while there’s been real growth in other international markets.
The international student strategy feted India as the top growth market for the near future, and so far this is being borne out; the number of sponsored UK study visas granted to Indian students has more than doubled from 2019, overtaking even the number given to Chinese students. We’ve also seen growth in Indian student numbers in our own buildings, particularly in Sheffield – our Archways property has become the first in our portfolio to have a majority Indian population.
2. Study isn’t everything for Indian students – work opportunities are a huge motivator
The reintroduction of the post-study work visa, which allows international students to stay in the UK and work for two years after finishing their course, has been an influential factor in encouraging Indian students to choose the UK over other study destinations. It was previously scrapped in 2012, heralding a drop-off in Indian student numbers.
The Indian student market is often compared to that of China, as both countries have populations of over one billion people, as well as large student populations looking to study abroad. However, there are many ways in which they differ, and a key one is the importance of post-study work opportunities. These are substantially more popular among Indian students than Chinese students, which can be largely attributed to cultural factors.
Due to China’s longstanding one-child policy, most Chinese students are only children, and their parents will often have saved so that their child can access the best education and accommodation outside of China. A Chinese student will typically come to the UK to study for an undergraduate degree at a Russell Group university, before returning to China afterwards – in part, to look after their family.
Indian students, on the other hand, are more likely to come to the UK for postgraduate study to work and earn. The average Indian household is larger than the Chinese equivalent and so, with more children to support, the family budget will usually be more stretched. As a result, financial pressures drive more of the decisions made by Indian students.
In addition to the post-study work visa, the UK is attractive because most Masters degrees take just one year here compared to the two-year courses that are popular elsewhere, allowing Indian students to save on the overall cost of tuition. Finance also influences where they study within the UK. Larger cities are often preferred due to the ease of finding a job, whereas the ranking of a university is not a major factor in decision-making. And, of course, tight budgets influence decisions around what they want from their accommodation.
3. The Indian market lacks understanding of the UK’s student accommodation sector…
As in China, there are education agents in India who support students on their journey towards studying abroad. In the past five to six years, Unite Students has worked with major accommodation agents in India who have a good knowledge of the market and share our values about the student experience.
While we have aligned ourselves with trusted agents and partners who understand the importance of accommodation, elsewhere there is a widespread lack of understanding about UK student accommodation. Efforts in China to improve both student and agent awareness of the market have paid off over the last decade, and now the touchpoints of finding and booking accommodation are established within a Chinese student’s journey to the UK. But in India, where these touchpoints are still developing, agents may offer misguided advice, such as recommending that a student waits until they arrive in the UK to search for permanent accommodation.
As a result, students themselves are often not prepared for the reality of finding accommodation in the UK. The peak accommodation booking period for Indian students is in the second half of August, a few weeks before they travel to the UK. By waiting to book accommodation, they may miss out on securing affordable or suitable accommodation. This can lead to them relying on staying with friends or in hostels, or renting low-quality housing.
Even those who do look at accommodation in advance may be worried about their visa being rejected or their finance plans being confirmed, and therefore unwilling to commit to signing a tenancy agreement until the application has been approved. As a result, conversions are lower with Indian students than Chinese students, so more students need to be engaged to fill beds.
4. …and there’s even more education to do around purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA)
It’s clear that work needs to be done to improve understanding of the UK accommodation market more widely, but this is particularly critical when it comes to choice of accommodation.
The financial factors that influence the decisions of many Indian students are also a driver in how they approach accommodation. Without the right guidance, they may take rental prices at face value without realising that, for example, PBSA operators typically include bills in their rents. A student may opt for to live in a HMO [House of Multiple Occupancy] property as it appears to be more budget-friendly, only to be surprised by the burden of bills at a later date. They may also be unaware of what criteria to look for when choosing accommodation and end up in housing that is unsuitable, unhygienic, or located in an unsafe part of a city.
However, numbers of Indian students living in PBSA are growing, and there are some early trends being seen here that again come back to price sensitivity. Where Chinese families may have the disposable income to book premium studio flats, Indian students will consider the most affordable options, including non-ensuite rooms and classic ensuite rooms in a shared flat.
5. While the Indian student market shows some clear trends, India is hugely diverse – and so are its students
India is one country, but within it are many multiplicities. There’s real religious diversity – the country is home to most of the world’s Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, but also significant Muslim, Christian and Buddhist populations – and there are states where the majority of the population is vegetarian. Accommodation teams are already beginning to see how these factors manifest within a student accommodation setting, with Indian students requesting vegetarian-only flats, or flats in which everyone is the same gender.
Consulting with Indian students can be a really valuable way of not only understanding India’s rich, diverse culture, but authentically representing it. We are working with Indian students to create blog and vlog content, whether that’s to reiterate the importance of booking accommodation early, raise awareness of purpose-built student accommodation in the UK, or share why they chose to live in PBSA. This will support the whole sector in efforts to better inform and support Indian students who are looking to live and study in the UK.
I learned plenty from my trip, not least the need for collaboration with UK universities to effectively promote a better understanding of student accommodation with agents and prospective students, and the stark differences between what Indian students want and what Chinese students want.
At Unite Students, we’re using this insight to support a better experience for Indian students. We’ve increased the number of payment instalments in a few key cities with high populations of Indian students, and are promoting our existing policies ‘No place no pay’ and ‘No visa no pay’ to reassure prospective tenants that they can cancel hassle-free if their university application or visa are denied, and encourage them to secure their accommodation earlier.
We look forward to learning more about this growing student demographic in the months to come, and I’m looking forward to visiting this beautiful country again in future.
You can read more insights from Bernadette in her blog about supporting Chinese students’ mental health.