Balance tilts towards foreign students at top universities

The profile of who gets into the most selective universities is changing, with over a quarter of overseas entrants to English Russell Group first degree courses now paying higher fees, claims one of Britain’s top higher education data experts.

That is up from around 16% between 2012 and 2017, with soaring inflation and fixed income from teaching UK students blamed for top-ranked universities boosting the number of international students recruited and increasing tuition fees for foreign students.

Unlike home fees, which were capped at GBP9,250 (US$11,800) for UK students at universities in England a decade ago, fees for international students remain uncapped.

An analysis by Mark Corver, co-founder and managing director of dataHE, looking at public data on admissions, inflation and fees, shows that overseas student tuition fees soared from around GBP14,500 in 2012 to an estimated GBP23,500 last year at England’s higher-tariff universities.

This widening of the gap between home and foreign fees at the country’s leading research-intensive universities looks set to continue unless this, or the next UK government due to be elected next year, bites the bullet and brings home tuition fees in line with inflation.

Home fee increase is ‘politically unattractive’

To catch up with the relative fall in value over the last 10 years, home tuition fees would need to rise to between GBP12,000 and GBP13,000, which Corver describes as having become “politically unattractive” after years of various Conservative governments refusing to increase them in line with inflation.

With research activities also underfunded at British universities, Corver told University World News: “One of the few things universities can do in response is to try to get a higher proportion of entrants paying the uncapped – and much higher – ‘international’ fees, so that the real average fee stays about the same.”

This move to increase the share of students paying higher ‘international’ fees was “particularly marked last year when high inflation hit the home fee value, and UK intakes to these universities dropped sharply whilst higher fee students increased slightly”, said Corver.

Looking at data from the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS) reveals a fall of 11,635 in the UK 18-year-old intake at higher-tariff universities in 2022 compared with the year before, according to Corver’s analysis of UCAS applicants.

“Looking at recruits of all ages, the proportion of the intake at higher fee levels increased to a record 23% in 2022. This will likely be an underestimate as higher fee students are more likely to be recruited directly and (not be recorded in UCAS) than other types of students,” said Corver’s research.

Fewer places for Brits?

His findings, some of which were reported by the Financial Times under the headline “Britons squeezed out of top universities by lucrative overseas students” on 21 July 2023, produced an outcry in some sections of the UK higher education sector, with Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), being criticised after he was quoted as saying: “The brewing scandal which will flare up this summer or next is Brits being squeezed out of Russell Group universities.

“Every time they take a foreign undergraduate there’s one less place for Brits.”

Hillman said he stood by what he said and told University World News: “The fact of the matter is that educating home students is a loss-making activity and no organisation can forever expand its loss-making activity – or if it does, it will run out of money.

“This time last year, I told numerous journalists that there was no widespread displacement because that’s what people like UCAS were saying on the basis of their data,” he said.

“This year, the evidence trail has changed, most notably thanks to the work of Mark Corver at dataHE – and when the facts change, I change my mind.

“I know the whole conversation makes some people uncomfortable because it can be misinterpreted as being anti international students.

“But I am a massive advocate for international students and, unless we are prepared to follow the evidence on home students and to put it in front of policymakers, the higher education sector cannot hope to win the argument with the government about the need for tuition fees to rise with inflation for home students.”

‘Ironic’ warning over Chinese students

David Miller, a former head of marketing at the University of Exeter, which joined the Russell Group after the home tuition fee was fixed at GBP9,250, said it was “ironic” that the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, was warning universities not to become overly dependent on income from Chinese students, while the government had refused to lift the cap on undergraduate fees for home students.

“What else are universities supposed to do? They have to increase their unregulated income,” he said.

Comments from other higher education figures on social media were critical of the Financial Times report and by implication the findings from dataHE, with Christopher Lawson, an international education expert with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, saying: “We have faced exactly the same sorts of headlines here in Australia over the years. International students are fully self-funded, and don’t take any Australian government supported places for Australians.”

Other commentators pointed to discrepancies between UCAS figures for applicants and data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) which uses actual enrolment data and is a year behind.

EU students reclassified

Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of the Education Insight consultancy, told University World News that while she did not have access to the UCAS data that Corver was using for his analysis of tuition fee levels, part of the fall in the percentage of lower fee students could be down to EU students no longer being classified as ‘home’ students and being expected to pay higher ‘international’ tuition fees from January 2021.

She said HESA data actually showed “a fall in full-time international entry to first-degree programmes of 14% in 2021/22, with a drop for the Russell Group of research-intensive UK universities of 11%”, but that covers all ages and not just the 18-year-old intake.

EU student numbers at UK universities have fallen dramatically since the implementation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed by the Boris Johnson government and European Commission, as University World News has previously reported.

Influx of masters students

Ilieva also pointed out that the rapid rise in international students at UK universities has been concentrated at the masters level, which has attracted considerable interest among politicians and led to a ban on international postgraduate taught students bringing dependants with them from next year.

“Masters courses are an area of weak domestic demand, particularly evident at a time of record low unemployment and a high volume of vacancies in the economy, pushing up the opportunity cost of education for home students,” she said.

“Over 90% of the full-time student population studying engineering and technology at the masters level is from outside the UK. These courses would not be viable if it were not for international students and the same is true for business studies.”

However, she agreed with Corver that inflation and the freezing of the home tuition fees for undergraduate courses was forcing UK universities to look at a number of possible “risk mitigation strategies”, to avoid running into financial trouble.

These were highlighted in the recent OfS Financial sustainability update, and included the options of closing loss-making courses and axing research activities where costs were not covered, as well as “shifting the balance of recruitment from UK students to overseas students”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.