Go back

Overseas detox

Vincenzo Raimo suggests UK universities have become addicted to international student revenues

Many UK universities find themselves chasing the euphoria of increased tuition fee revenues, fuelled by the post-Covid influx of international students. Like a drug addict seeking a fix, they now find themselves hooked and the prospect of any future reduction in students is leading to high levels of anxiety among university leaders.

An abrupt withdrawal from this international student “drug” threatens the very foundations of UK universities’ financial stability. Much like an addict forced into detox, these institutions are unable to break free from a habit that has become ingrained in their system.

Global competition and the impact of UK government rhetoric and policy on the attractiveness of the UK is hitting universities hard. We’ve already had announcements of planned cost reductions and staff redundancies as a result of falls in international student enrolments at Coventry, York and elsewhere. The reality is that we’ve seen nothing yet. The real impact of changes in global flows of students and the attractiveness of the UK as a study destination won’t be felt by many universities until this coming September, when the result of fewer applications from South Asia and Nigeria will mean fewer new international student enrolments and larger gaps between planned income and committed spend.

Withdrawal symptoms

It’s no wonder, then, that universities are in defensive mode, rebutting attacks both from a government increasingly hostile to international students—and perhaps to universities more generally—and from a right-leaning media whose middle-class readers fear that their children won’t find a place in one of the so-called ‘elite’ Russell Group universities.

But unless university leaders believe that a radical change to the higher education funding landscape is on the horizon, they need to be doing more than simply defending their current positions on international students in the hope that those students will continue to arrive in sufficient numbers to balance the books.

Steps to recovery

They need to start by explaining, with evidence, the wider benefits that international students bring to their universities, their wider communities and cities, and to the country. And the evidence must be presented consistently to all these stakeholders so that it addresses their concerns and answers their questions. My local MP, Sir Alok Sharma, then a junior foreign office minister, once said to me: “You need to explain the benefits of international students to my constituents along the Oxford Road and not just talk among yourselves.”

Then, we need to deliver on our promises to international students about what they will encounter in the UK, what they can expect, and how they will benefit from their experiences studying at our universities. And we need to back these promises up with actions on areas including accommodation, student support and work opportunities while studying and after graduation.

It’s not good enough to say that well-priced accommodation is available when it gets fully booked by the time an international student has secured their visa, that the minimum wage for over 21-year-olds in 2024 will be £11.44 when there’s limited time on their course for paid employment, or when part-time work isn’t easily available in their study location, or that the university has excellent employability data when that data doesn’t include international students.

Blaming bad agents

We need to encourage those international students to choose us because we’re the right choice for them and not just because we need the tuition fees they bring. We must stop blaming bad agents when things go wrong for international students in the recruitment process and recognise that we appointed those agents in the first place.

A much-needed Agent Quality Framework (AQF) has been put together by the British Universities’ International Liaison Association (BUILA), the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), Universities UK International (UUKi) and the British Council. It includes basic training for agents, advice for university recruitment staff on undertaking due diligence on future agents and a code of ethics for agents to sign up to. But so far only about half of all UK universities have signed up, and while the framework promotes ethical practices for agents, it fails to include a code of ethics for universities and their international student recruitment staff.

Finally, we need to understand the turbulent international student environment—prone to many domestic and international social, economic and political shifts that can quickly affect expectations of student demand and future enrolments—and plan accordingly.

The quest for the next international student ‘hit’ must not become an all-consuming pursuit that leads some to compromise academically and risk tarnishing hard-earned reputations in a bid to secure the tuition fee income they bring. Sacrifices made in this pursuit may have long-lasting consequences for the quality of education and institutions’ integrity.

Vincenzo Raimo is a visiting fellow at the University of Reading, where he previously served as pro vice-chancellor for global engagement. He is an expert on international student recruitment and the work of education agents. He is a consultant to UK universities and others on global engagement and international education.