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A fine balance

Charlie Tennant argues for better weighting between UK and international student recruitment

A report from the Office for Students has warned of growing risks to universities’ financial stability from inflation and overreliance on international students.

Meanwhile, news that Labour leader Keir Starmer is planning to pull away from his party’s pledge to remove tuition fees in the UK has sparked debate around what model the UK should adopt in funding its higher education provision.

Universities have had the fees they can charge UK students frozen at £9,250 a year since 2017—and this is despite rising costs and inflation recently being its highest in 41 years. While some priority subject areas receive funding managed by the OfS, which has increased, many areas do not, and so most institutions have seen a cut to their UK undergraduate funding.

Bridging gaps

The UK has seen increases in international student recruitment, both due to its popularity as a study destination—thanks to the new graduate route visa—and because institutions can be flexible about raising fees for international students on undergraduate programmes—albeit that flexibility is still subject to market forces.

International student fees are therefore one of the few facets of their operations that universities can easily use to bridge funding gaps left by the government’s tuition fee freeze. While institutions can also look at UK recruitment to postgraduate provision to generate more income, international student fees for postgraduate programmes are equally flexible and restricting recruitment just to the UK would not make commercial sense.

At the same time, only the highest-ranking and most research-active universities have a chance at leveraging research income to fill tuition fee-related funding gaps. So for many institutions, international student recruitment is the best way not only to make up financial ground but also to attract more income that can be reinvested in estates, equipment and student experience initiatives—to the benefit of UK and international students alike.

However, as gaps in funding have grown in recent years, so has the reliance of more and more institutions on income from international student fees. This presents challenges.

Emissions and exposure

First, the UK and its higher education sector have ambitions to reduce carbon emissions. Currently, when most institutions recruit international students, they do so to programmes delivered on campus. This is also what students want, so they can experience UK culture. This inevitably leads to higher carbon emissions from flights.

While some would argue that these students would still travel—instead making trips to Canada, Australia or another popular study destination—it adds to the carbon emissions created directly as a result of the operations of UK higher education, and therefore to risks for both the UK government and the sector of failing to meet their own emissions targets.

Second—and most fundamentally—the UK government’s decision to keep fees frozen, and the resulting increased reliance on international student fees, leaves UK universities exposed financially—so much so that some British universities could close if they lost all their international students.


Higher education providers are vulnerable to changes in UK immigration laws; recent commentary by home secretary Suella Braverman on student visa regulations needing to be tightened sparked worry among institutions about what it would mean in terms of the attractiveness of the UK as a place for international students.

They are also vulnerable in terms of the geopolitical landscape, with the UK seeing the majority of its international student population coming from a small number of countries. In recent years, these have been China and India. Should relations between the UK and either of these two nations deteriorate and prospective students domiciled in those nations be discouraged—or even prevented—from studying in the UK, the UK’s higher education sector would suffer financially.

This may mean fewer resources to develop world-leading facilities and provide student services, and it could potentially lead to the closure of institutions, in whole or in part.

Funding rethink

The UK government therefore needs to consider what it would like to see from its higher education sector in terms of taught education. Does it see UK higher education’s main purpose as to educate and support the development of the UK’s citizens and workforce, or to export education to the rest of the globe?

The answer is probably—and quite rightly—both. However, developing funding policies that make the sector too reliant on the latter leaves it exposed to eventually being unable to provide the former.

While it may be attractive to the government to keep the status quo, to not have to ask UK students to pay more or taxpayers to foot a higher bill, and to allow UK universities to find resources through international student fees, this leaves the sector in a position of great precarity.

If we want a sector that is stable enough to deliver long-term higher education provision for future generations in the UK and to stand tall as a leader in the global higher education environment, we need a funding rethink.

Whether this is achieved through lifting UK tuition fee caps more in line with inflation or by an entirely new model, it will need to involve a more balanced weighting between recruiting UK and international students.

Charlie Tennant is head of business operations at Greenwich Business School at the University of Greenwich.