Universities ‘over-reliant’ on Chinese students: HEFCE

English universities have become over-reliant on growth in recruitment of full-time postgraduate students from China and have developed a risky dependence on scholars funded by their own governments, according to new analysis by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE.

This will be challenged by a fast decline in China’s youth population, as well as China’s own efforts to become a study destination country, the paper warned. China’s 20-year-old population is expected to decline by 40 per cent in the period from 2015 to 2020, compared with 2005 to 2010.

English universities have also developed a risky dependence on additionally attracting more and more postgraduate students from countries with strong state-funded scholarship programmes that are dependent on government funding priorities – such as Malaysia, Iraq and Libya.

“While this demonstrates the excellent value of an English postgraduate degree for overseas national governments, this may be an area of vulnerability if these countries shift their funding priorities,” the HEFCE report says.

The paper, Global Demand for English Higher Education: Latest shifts and trends, also warned that although total international student numbers have recovered in England, the growth rate of these enrolments remain low compared with English-speaking competitor destinations.

The growth rate in the United States in 2013 compared to 2012 was 8%, double that of the international student enrolment in England (4%), the analysis found.

“There is an indication that US universities are increasingly using agency recruitment and third parties’ pathway programmes, which is likely to present an additional challenge to English higher education institutions in their recruitment efforts overseas,” HEFCE warns.

Currently, full-time international entrants constitute 18% of total entrants in England, compared to 4.2% in the United States, according to the analysis of 2013 figures.

Challenged by Asian hubs

The long-term sustainability of growth in postgraduate demand outside China will be further challenged if privately funded demand for postgraduate education continues to decline.

The paper warned that in the medium to long term, the dependency on China and Malaysia for growth at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels will be challenged by their desire to become international education hubs.

Growth rates in the numbers of international students studying in the two countries are already high and “growing domestic capacity and continued investments in education systems may create an attractive and economically viable proposition for some of the students in the East Asia region seeking overseas education”, the HEFCE report says.

Unemployment driving recruitment

The HEFCE analysis compares statistics for 2012-13 with those for 2013-14.

In England, at undergraduate level, Italy and Spain drove growth in demand for undergraduate and postgraduate education.

“They were among the countries with the highest youth unemployment and declines in the volume of economic output, which highlights the counter-cyclical nature of demand for English higher education in these two countries,” the report says.

Overall, there was a 4% rise in EU entrants to full-time higher education in England in 2013, compared with the previous year, taking the total to 38,140, up by 1,395. But the number of entrants remained 12% below 2010 levels, according to the paper published on 18 February.

Non-EU international entrants to full-time higher education rose by a healthier 7% during the same period to 138,865, up by 9,020, says the paper.

Although there was a 7% recovery in EU undergraduate entrants in 2013, compared with the year before, this is still 16% below 2010 entry levels.

Two factors negatively affecting recruitment of EU students are the hike in tuition fees in England in 2012 – mostly involving a tripling of the cost – and the EU’s demographics. Apart from the Netherlands and tiny Luxembourg, EU member states have seen significant declines in the population of 18 year-olds since 2010.

England has been hit most by a decline from some of the largest EU countries of origin, such as Germany and France. Since 2010, first-degree entrants from those two countries dropped by 42% and 30% respectively.

By contrast the EU countries with the largest growth in first-degree entrants in 2013 compared with 2010 are Italy (365 entrants), Hungary (140), Portugal (135) and Spain (100). Other than Hungary, for which data are not available, these are all among the countries with the highest levels of unemployment, the report says.

Improving employability

“Improving their employability prospects with an English degree may be among the key decision-making factors students from these countries consider when weighing their study options,” HEFCE says.

Spain, Portugal and Italy, along with Greece and Cyprus, have experienced the largest declines in their real gross domestic product, or GDP, in the past two years.

“Spain and Italy were also among the countries with the largest absolute declines in their 18-year-old populations since 2010, which suggests that the economic drivers towards studying in England are overriding the demographic ones,” HEFCE says.

Non-EU international entrants to full-time undergraduate courses grew by 8% in 2013 compared with the previous year, reaching 54,250, up by 3,960.

“Students from East Asia continued to drive undergraduate entry to England,” the report says.

Malaysia had the strongest growth, with 35% (1,040 entrants). Hong Kong and Singapore continued their rate of growth from previous years, with 13% and 21% growth respectively.

There was a slowdown in the rate of growth in entrants from China to 3%. But entry from Nigeria grew by 17%, the report says.

Impact of transnational education

This suggests that growth in undergraduate entrants is concentrated in “countries which are strong in transnational education delivered by English higher education institutions”, the HEFCE says. It noted that more than half of the students from China and Malaysia, the two countries driving growth at undergraduate and postgraduate level, commenced their undergraduate degree through courses delivered by British institutions overseas.

The decline in Indian students’ entry levelled off in 2013, remaining almost unchanged compared with the previous year. Saudi Arabia continued to decline, falling by 18%. Its numbers have more than halved compared with 2010.

The non-EU student share of the full-time undergraduate entrants rose from 8% in 2005 to 13% in 2013. But the EU student share of the same population was the same in 2013 as 2005, at 5%.

Overall the percentage of full-time undergraduate entrants who were foreign students rose from 13% in 2005 to 18% in 2013, the HEFCE paper says.

Increasing Chinese postgraduate entrants

The number of international and EU entrants to postgraduate education rose by 6% and 1% respectively from 2012 to 2013, to a combined total of 103,680.

Nearly half the growth was driven by increasing numbers of Chinese entrants, rising by 9% to 31,195 entrants, up 2,615. The fastest rise was among Malaysian students, which increased by 30% to 2,180 entrants, up 500, the report says.

HEFCE has previously reported that China has a very high progression rate (56%) of students who started their undergraduate education in England through a transnational education course and progressed to postgraduate studies.

The entry rate from Indonesia and Iraq grew by 41% and 21% respectively. There was recovery in demand from Saudi Arabia, up 19 %, and Libya, up 81%, but their numbers remained lower than in 2010.

Fall in entrants from India

While China’s share of full-time non-EU postgraduates has risen from 25% in 2010 to 37% in 2013, India’s share has fallen sharply in the same period from 18% to 8%.

This is in contrast to student flows from India to other English-speaking countries: overall enrolments from India increased by 6% in the US (3,650 students) and 33% in Australia (4,105 students) in 2013, with growth concentrated in postgraduate studies, the report says.

The fall in entrants from India seems to have hit science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – subjects and business related subjects particularly badly, with a 66 % decline in Indian entrants to STEM subjects between 2010 and 2013.

England’s postgraduate sector is now heavily dependent on one country, China. Among full-time postgraduate entrants, the leading countries of origin are: China (37%), India (8%), Nigeria (6%), United States (6%), Pakistan (2%), Saudi Arabia (3%).

“The long term sustainability of growth in postgraduate entry is uncertain,” the HEFCE says.

Foreign students dominate taught masters

England’s full-time postgraduate taught masters courses are now heavily dominated by foreign students, who make up 74% of entrants, with 12% of those coming from the EU and 62% from non-EU countries. There are now almost as many Chinese full-time masters students as home students.

Entrants to full-time postgraduate research degrees by EU students rose by 11% while international entrants rose by 10% between 2012 and 2013. The increasing demand was driven by Italy and Spain among EU students and by China (up 12%), Iraq (up 99%), Malaysia (up 23%) and Libya (up 37%) among international students.

The governments of Iraq and Malaysia funded more than half their new entrants in postgraduate research, while the Libyan government sponsored more than three-quarters of its entrants.