Reduce Reliance on foreign students, says think tank

Universities in the UK are being urged to reduce their financial reliance on international students to protect their independence and long-term sustainability.

Students punting on the river at Cambridge University
With some 343,000 students from non-European nations enrolled at UK universities last year, a report from the Onward think-tank proposes that the government should consider capping the proportion of income that a university can generate from a single country to avoid risks to academic independence.

UK university dependence on foreign students has created 'financial fragility"

The report said that institutions' heavy reliance on overseas student fees - particularly from Chinese students, whose numbers grew to more than 120,000 last year - could be countered by higher levels of public funds for value-added courses, such as physical sciences, medicine and engineering, to encourage more UK students to take these subjects.Will Tanner, director of Onward and author of the report, also proposed that rules be introduced to prevent universities increasing their numbers of overseas students unless they also raised the number of places for Britons.The report said that dependence on international student income had created "financial fragility" among many universities."Smaller universities may become unviable without income from overseas students. It is possible that several universities will go bust, disrupting the education of tens of thousands of young people at a time when the labour market offers few alternatives.

Coronavirus and other geopolitical risks to UK higher education

"UK universities have become too reliant on overseas students from one dominant source. This is a consequence of the view - held for a quarter of a century across all parties - that exporting higher education has no downsides and could continue indefinitely."The coronavirus has exposed the risks of such an approach, while growing geopolitical risks should also give ministers pause."Mr Tanner said that while overseas students generated valuable income and provided an international focus on many UK campuses, universities had become "worryingly dependent" on their fees, which are far higher than those paid by British and EU students.
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A worrying one-third of UK university funding comes from China

"Britain has never had a serious debate about the growth of overseas students. Yet the viability of the UK's most prestigious universities - to say nothing of billions of pounds of science funding - is now decided not in Parliament but in countries thousands of miles away," he said."Even more worrying is that a third of overseas funding comes from China, a country whose government has shown itself unafraid of threatening to cut student flows in response to criticism and whose commercial partnerships with UK universities are increasingly under scrutiny."A spokesman for the Department for Education in London said, "International students play a vital role in our economy, our society and our culture and we are proud that so many choose to study here."One of the aims of government's International Education Strategy is to avoid an over-reliance on a single funding source, helping universities to recruit sustainably and widening the appeal of our universities through the Graduate Route, due in summer 2021."Covid-19 has also highlighted the need for the higher education sector to diversify and we encourage providers to continue to innovate and broaden their offerings, including degree apprenticeships and more part-time learning."

Read more news and views from David Sapsted.

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