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Leading universities on collision course with government on international students

By November 13, 2023No Comments

The UK’s leading universities are warning they will need a significant increase in the number of international students unless tuition fees are increased, i can reveal.

It comes after Home Secretary Suella Braverman ordered a crackdown on foreign students as part of a push.

In its “manifesto” for further education under the next government, the Russell Group of 24 leading universities warn that funding per student next year will hit its “lowest point this millennium” as the sector grapples with real-terms funding cuts and spiralling cost pressures. 

Tuition fees remain capped at £9,250, with the figure having risen £250 over the past 11 years.

Universities have already begun recruiting larger numbers of international students to help subsidise soaring costs, but the sector will have little option but to ramp up its foreign recruitment drive further if tuition fees remain frozen, the Russell Group will say in its report published on Thursday.

The move will fly directly in the face of recent Government policy, which has sought to clamp down on international students in recent months as part of efforts to slim down overall migration to the UK.

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Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, told i: “We want to work with the Government to develop a more sustainable funding model – one that offsets the impact of inflation on per-student funding, and is fair and affordable for students and taxpayers.

“International students make a huge contribution to the UK. As well as bringing a wide range of cultural, social and economic benefits, revenue from international students is reinvested into high-quality

He said it was “vital” that the next government strengthens the current visa system for international students to protect the UK’s reputation as a top study destination.

i understands the group will also appeal for a change in rhetoric from some members of the Government. British universities have taken a major bruising from repeat ministerial attacks on the sector over the past year, including promises to crack down on “rip-off degrees” and Suella Braverman’s restriction on dependant visas for international students’ family members.

The rebukes are believed to have hampered the UK’s reputation abroad, causing international students to seek courses in the US and Australia over Britain.

i understands that any move to increase the number of international will not come at the expense of domestic students, nor will universities raise costs for overseas students. Universities are instead expected to create new spaces for international students as an emergency measure while funding remains hampered.

International students now account for roughly 20 per cent of universities’ income, up from around 10 per cent a decade ago.

In 2021-22 there were 679,970 international students studying in the UK. 120,140 of these were from the EU and 559,825 were non-EU.

In the year ending June 2023, there were 498,626 sponsored study visas and 98,398 Graduate route visas granted, according to Universities UK.

Some Russell Group universities rely heavily on overseas recruitment, with foreign students making up more than half of the undergraduate admissions at both University College London (UCL) and the London School of Economics (LSE).

But while the increase has helped offset costs, universities are still having to subsidise tuition fees for domestic students.

Analysis by the Russell Group found that universities faced an average shortfall of approximately £2,500 on every UK undergraduate student this academic year, with the figure expected to jump to £5,000 by 2029/30 if tuition fees remain frozen. But while the increase has helped offset costs, universities are still having to subsidise tuition fees for domestic students.

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour are expected to announce any policy proposals on tuition fees before the next general election, with the move seen as too politically risky before a national vote.

However, the Russell Group will issue a warning over the dire state of the sector that the winning party will inherit once election season is over, expected in late 2024.

“We recognise that challenging public finances mean significant funding reform is unlikely in the short term,” Dr Bradshaw told i.

“However, if nothing changes, our analysis shows that domestic per-student funding shortfalls will likely double by 2030. Universities are already driving down costs and creating greater efficiencies, but without a solution they will inevitably be forced to make difficult choices that impact on student experience and choice.”

The Russell Group will also call on the next government to increase maintenance loans “to reflect inflation” and reinstate maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students, which were scrapped by the Tories in 2016.

Labour has hinted that it could reintroduce the grants, but has yet to flesh out its main policy proposals for the university sector.

Sir Keir Starmer said earlier this year that he would move on” from the party’s previous promise to scrap tuition fees and will instead look at a more “progressive” repayment model. It is widely expected to see repayments weighted more heavily further down graduates’ career. 

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

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