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UK universities must stop relying on China, experts warn

Demand from international students likely to slow down for several years

Universities are being urged to diversify their international student intake and rely less on China, after a British Council survey revealed an upcoming ‘battle’ for the UK’s biggest market.

A survey of 11,000 students in China by the British Council found that 39 per cent of those who had already applied for UK courses with a September start were unsure about whether to stick to their plans. A total of 22 per cent of respondents said they were likely to cancel, while 27 per cent said they would not withdraw their applications.

The global coronavirus pandemic has forced universities to shut campuses and move teaching online, causing uncertainty about whether international students will be able to start in September. China is the UK’s largest international student market, and students’ fees provide vital funds for UK universities as they are used partly to cross-subsidise shortfalls in research budgets. Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, is asking the UK government for a bailout to help universities weather the worst of the coronavirus crisis.

To stem the loss of international students next year, Vivienne Stern, director at UUK International, told Research Professional News that universities could offer “blended starts” for students or provide online learning at the start of their course and switch to face-to-face provision when it becomes available. Stern stressed that universities were already changing their offers to help retain international students, as highlighted in UUK’s #WeAreTogether social media campaign.

But she warned that students would have to receive “an equivalent experience” to face-to-face learning if universities wanted to charge the same amount as they usually would for international students. There is a “greater difficulty” in delivering online courses to students in China, which has restrictions on internet access.

Before the coronavirus, Stern said, people were already discussing the need to “diversify the intake of international students”. The pandemic “could exacerbate something happening already” as universities fight for students.

Michael Peak, senior adviser in education research at the British Council, agreed that sector bodies and the government had been “aware of the benefits of diversifying student recruitment” for a while and that the pandemic could offer an opportunity to grow recruitment among students from other countries. “This may make people reassess international student recruitment,” he said.

Peak also said that online learning could help universities rise to the challenge of international students being unable to come to campuses, with “a host of new ways to deliver education” meaning that transnational education could be “the new normal” long after the pandemic has passed.

But Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, cautioned that while online delivery would be “the only way” to keep international students engaged for the time being, it would have to be done “more cheaply” as the student experience would not be the same. Marginson said it would be “necessary to have a new pricing structure” as online delivery became more prevalent, with the UK “finally seeing price variation” in online provision as a result.

While most universities will be looking to September and January, Marginson warned that international student mobility could be “knocked for six” for several years to come. “The face-to-face of international education…is going to take a long time to recover,” he said, adding that when it returns it will be “a shadow of what it was”.

Marginson also warned that there would be a “big drop-off in demand” from students in China as they were uneasy about how the UK had handled the coronavirus pandemic. “The UK is in trouble but the United States is in bigger trouble,” he said.