Lowering tuition fees for poorer nations is a flawed idea

Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London, recently said that “unjustly” high fees for overseas learners were being excluded from the debate over sustainable higher education funding.

Not only did he say that, but he also posited that international fees were “truly skewed”, with some international students charged a 400% mark-up on the actual cost of their tertiary education.

Habib warned that, without acknowledgement that international fee levels are “unsustainable”, the sector risked being seen as “hypocritical”, with talk of social justice and protecting students against exploitation seen as applying only to the domestic market.

A sliding scale for fees dependent on whether governments are subsidising students or a country’s overall level of wealth could be one option for a fairer system, according to Habib. The latter could see students from Saudi Arabia or China charged more, for example, than those from parts of Africa.

Inequality within countries

In our view this is a terrible idea. Countries may be poor, but anyone who has lived in “a poorer country” will testify that, even in the poorest of countries, there are very rich people who can and should pay full international tuition fees.

The top 10 countries with the highest wealth inequality, according to the World Bank Gini index 2022, were: South Africa – 63.0%; Namibia – 59.1%; Suriname – 57.9%; Zambia – 57.1%; Sao Tome and Principe – 56.3%; Central African Republic – 56.2%; Eswatini – 54.6%; Mozambique – 54.0%; Brazil – 53.4% and Botswana – 53.3%. These are the very countries that Habib is suggesting would be eligible for lower international tuition fees.

This inequality is often exacerbated by inadequate domestic education systems that fail to prepare all but the richest citizens for a higher education overseas and by the presence of corrupt and-or oppressive governments. By subsidising the studies of these students, the wealth gap would be further enhanced and corruption rewarded through lower tuition fees for the rich and privileged offspring of corrupt officials.

Universities would be far better off ending their obsession with continuously lobbying for extensions to post-study work rights to attract international students and investing in data on international graduate outcomes back in students’ home countries to facilitate the successful transition of their international students to the workforce and to stem the brain drain from South to North, thus stimulating economic growth prosperity in “poorer nations”.

Brain drain

Since 1960, the emigration of high-skilled people from poor countries has accelerated. Many English-speaking countries in the West are intensifying their efforts to attract and retain foreign students, which increases the risk of brain drain in the sending countries. In poor countries, this transfer can change the skill structure of the labour force, cause labour shortages and affect fiscal policy.

The worst-affected countries see more than 80% of their “brains” emigrating abroad. Countries are losing between one-third and one-half of their college graduates. Most are in Sub-Saharan Africa (countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia) or Asia (including Afghanistan and Cambodia).

Blanket lower fees for so-called “poorer countries” is a totally flawed approach. It would be far better to take the University of Nottingham’s approach and provide multiple targeted scholarships to those who need them most.

Developing Solutions is the university’s flagship masters scholarship, founded in 2001, for students from African, South Asian and other selected Commonwealth countries. This scholarship programme is designed for international students who want to make a difference to the development of key economic, environmental, structural, social or political structures in their home country.


We would go further: to say that any form of proxy means testing on a “global scale”, considering the countries involved, would be both inaccurate and arbitrary.

The British taxpayer subsidises United Kingdom universities, something universities may need reminding of periodically. It therefore makes sense that the British taxpayers benefit from lower tuition than those from outside the country, as their taxes are contributing directly to the financial well-being of the UK higher education sector.

However, any student from outside the UK, including the European Union post-Brexit, should pay full international tuition fees, unless they achieve a scholarship to study in the UK. This is the only fair way of allocating what is a scarce resource.

According to a study from Harvard University and the Asian Development Bank, only 6.7% of the world’s population are college degree-holders.

Instead of helping to right global inequality in a single stroke, the head of SOAS University of London should perhaps focus on ‘putting his own house in order’. In the summer of 2020 Habib’s predecessor announced that SOAS University of London would have to implement “painful” measures, including job cuts, as it battles “viability problems” caused by its already precarious financial position which was worsened by the coronavirus crisis.

In an email to staff in May 2020, Graham Upton, in his second week as SOAS’s interim director, said previous “recurrent deficits have posed a severe threat to our long-term financial sustainability”.

Global inequality is an issue that both concerns and motivates all those working in higher education, but misguided efforts to combat it through quick-fix solutions that do not in fact reach the intended audience are never going to be effective.

It would be far better to invest in the long game, enhancing international development through targeted, merit-based scholarships and support, in their early careers, for students from poorer nations who return home to make fundamental and valuable contributions to the prosperity of their own countries now and in the future.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.