The number of new Chinese students enrolling at British universities fell for the first time last year, while soaring numbers from India came over to study.
The decrease of 5 per cent, the first in more than a decade, could herald a cooling in the surging demand in China for a British education, experts said.
The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) also revealed that more than a third of graduates — 36 per cent — were given a first-class degree last summer, one percentage point higher than the previous year and up from 16 per cent in 2011.
Office for Students, the regulator, warned universities about the increase in top degrees, saying: “Ensuring that qualifications stand the test of time is crucial both in ensuring that students know that their efforts are properly and accurately reflected in their degrees, and in preserving the integrity of our higher-education sector.”
It added: “We must be careful to ensure the results of the pandemic do not bake grade inflation into the system.”
The Hesa figures relate to the 2020-21 academic year and show that the total number of higher education students stood at 2,751,865, an increase of 9 per cent. The number of first-year postgraduate students rose by 16 per cent, while the number of first degree entrants rose by 8 per cent.
The number of mature students had increased after a period of decline and there was a 13 per cent growth of first-year students from the UK, compared with 4 per cent from other countries.
While China still provided far more students than any other country, the number of its first-year students fell from 104,240 to 99,160 this year. The number of first-year students from India rose by 27 per cent to 53,000, with growing numbers thought to be attracted by changes to post-study work visas.
Critics have said some UK universities are over-reliant on the lucrative fees paid by Chinese students and warned that greater diversity was needed.
Tom Tugendhat, the MP who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, said in response to the figures: “It’s important that our universities are beginning to diversify international student recruitment, instead of relying on one authoritarian country.”
Julia Pamilih, director of the China Research Group, which was set up by a group of Tory MPs, warned that rising anti-western sentiment in China could be feeding through to student numbers.
However, the downward turn might also be attributed to China having very strict Covid-19 policies that made it difficult for students to leave and re-enter the country, she added.
Jo Johnson, the former universities minister, said having one in three international students from outside the EU coming from China “represents a significant risk to the financial resilience of the UK higher education system and our wider knowledge economy.”
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, welcomed the wider growth in international students, adding: “Data suggests students from China may have been more likely to delay” their study plans because of Covid.
Andrew Lewer, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for independent education, said: “I would be surprised if the deteriorating political atmosphere between China and the UK . . . has not had some impact on student numbers. It would be sensible for any educational establishment . . . not to over-base its financial security on students and support from China.”
Demand for a UK university education cools in China