International students are not “taking seats away” from domestic UK students, stakeholders have reiterated after various media outlets have led with stories suggesting otherwise.
After pressure from right-wing members of parliaments and calls for resetting the government’s investment in UK higher education, the Financial Times and The Telegraph have run articles with headlines about British students ‘missing out’ on places to international counterparts.
The FT suggested that it is becoming “apparent that the big increase in the share of places offered to international students was starting to affect the chances of British children attending the highest-ranked universities”.
The report highlights proportional changes in the numbers of international students at Russell Group, highlighting that more than a quarter of places at English Russell Group universities went to international students last year, up from 16% between 2012-2017.
However, the use of ratios has been questioned by some, who point to absolute numbers.
Imperial College, which the paper notes has increased its share of international students to over 40% over the past seven years, for example increased the number of UK students in 2021/22 to 10,150 from 8,645 in 2014/15.
Referring to HESA statistics for the 2021/22 academic year, she noted that international student growth was only at the master’s level, which is “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”.
The figures show that overall international master’s student numbers rose to 526,645 from 482,895 in 2020/21. This is compared to a decline among domestic students across the UK nations from 280,465 in 2020/21 to 259,850 in the following year.
Speaking recently with The PIE, outgoing chair of BUILA and associate pro vice-chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Portsmouth, Bobby Mehta, also highlighted the point.
“From an international student perspective, the growth has been in postgrad. It doesn’t compute, because we are talking about undergraduate students here, we are not talking about postgrad. The major growth in the UK from the last number of years has come from the postgrad area, so it’s not stealing at all,” he said.
“The issue here is about domestic student funding.”
There are fears that headlines such as these will be misleading, especially in terms of the value contributions international students make to university finances, research and the UK as a whole.
“The issue here is about domestic student funding”
Recent research found that international students boosted the UK’s economy by £41.9bn in 2021/22, while it is often pointed out that overseas students expand options for domestic students by propping up some of the 30,000 courses available across the country with their tuition fees.
“Over 90% of the full-time student population studying engineering and technology at the master’s level, also business studies, are from outside the UK,” Ilieva noted. “These courses would not be viable if it were not for international students.”
It comes after some UK universities were accused by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak of offering “rip-off” degrees at the expense of the UK taxpayers.
StudyGroup’s James Pitman described the government’s announcement as “pure politics”, while UUK chief executive Vivienne Stern said a “broad understanding” of value in higher education is need.
“Measures of quality and value should certainly not be based on income data alone,” she said.
There are “ways to fix” the perception that there are not enough seats for domestic students, Mehta continued.
“The government has the levers, but they are not doing anything about that, and that is addressing the domestic fee issue. What they are doing is wrongly conflating it with something that is not related.”
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