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The problem of positioning international students as cash cows

  • 4 November 2021

This blog was contributed by Jenna Mittelmeier and Sylvie Lomer of the University of Manchester

International students are often seen as ‘cash cows’ for the UK higher education sector, providing a steady stream of income to universities and the country. The UK Government’s briefing on the financial impact of COVID-19, for example, labelled  international students as ‘a surplus or “profit”’ that ‘helps fund important “loss making” activities such as research’. This policy narrative is sustained elsewhere in the sector, such as the report this year from HEPI and Universities UK’s International Unit, providing a cost-benefit analysis of the economic drains and contributions of international students. The report highlights they have ‘delivered a net economic benefit of £25.9 billion to the UK’.

International students are an extreme example of higher education’s neoliberal marketisation, particularly as their participation comes at a premium tuition fee cost, a known inequality that effectively subsidises domestic education. Despite being essential for many institutions to survive, international students are frequently excluded from key quality indicators, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework and data on graduate employability. While the language used to talk about international students tends to borrow from marketing, situating them as ‘consumers’, the policy drivers pushing employability have not included international students.

In this sense, HEPI’s recent report on careers and employability for international students, produced in collaboration with Kaplan International Pathways, is an important step. The findings highlight a range of concerns from international students, suggesting that institutions need to do more to embed careers skills in courses and provide more support leading up to and after graduation. This is an important complement to the rosier picture painted in 2019 by UUK with International Graduate Outcomes data, suggesting over 90% satisfaction with life and career outcomes.

Yet in some senses, this ostensibly positive focus on international students’ experiences and justifiable critiques of their education are compromised by the cash-cow narrative. For example, the recent HEPI report claims that ‘[e]ducation is a truly great British export’ (pg. 9). While the report does rightfully clarify that ‘[t]here are other benefits from educating people from all over the world’ (pg. 10), the overarching framing is economic: that employability services are necessary for continuing to recruit international students – and their money.

We argue that it is crucial for the sector to continue to challenge such discourses. Education can be sold on an international market, but therein lies a more pressing question: should it? Education is fundamentally not a ‘good’ or ‘export’, despite the growing political pressures to position it as such. To reduce services down to their ‘value for money’ views education through a functionalist lens, economising its historical, social, and cultural contributions to society. But more importantly, reducing education to a marketised good fails to acknowledge its role ‘as a practice of freedom’: a fundamentally social, transformative, transgressive space that develops people and their futures. When students, international and domestic alike, are positioned as customers, student support becomes valued for its economic incentive, rather than its ethical imperative.

The positioning of international students as marketised commodities further contributes to their dehumanisation. International students, through their binary fee category classifications, become homogenised as a collective group with similar needs, rarely seen as highly diverse, multifaceted individuals with intersectional experiences. For example, the majority of research about international students’ experiences, including the recent HEPI report, does not clarify the country that students are from, as a rudimentary recognition of difference.

The result of this dehumanisation is that support for international students tends not to address the inequalities experienced across their holistic learning experiences. For example, decades of research has shown us that many international students are socially segregated or even avoided by home students. The sector is aware that many international students encounter racism, stigmatisation, and even violence on campus. Research consistently shows that pedagogies with international students have been historically assimilative rather than interculturally transformative and inclusive. International students’ knowledge is often viewed as inferior, clouded by ‘deficit narratives’: the assumption that they lack particular skills for success or that their presence lowers standards.

Surely, addressing such ethical issues on our multicultural campuses would significantly improve international students’ experiences and their goodwill towards their host society. However, the messiness of tackling discrimination, social segregation, and epistemic injustice is not as easy to prominently display on institutional marketing brochures. Therefore, the decision to frame education and support provisions as marketised goods becomes a politicised statement of what matters under the broad umbrella of ‘student experience’.

It is too easy to allow concerns for ‘student experience’ to become functionalist, economic rationales: unless customers are happy, service providers have no reason to exist and can be outcompeted. Instead, we might propose a focus on students’ rights. Students (international and domestic) have rights to equal access to inclusive curricula and meaningful support of equal quality. If careers support, or indeed classroom support, is not accessible by all students equally, and does not confer equal value, then their rights are not being respected – a problem that extends beyond economics.

To meet that ambition, provisions for international students should not stop at the outcomes-driven and neoliberal markers of employability, but also engage with fundamental issues of developing inclusive experiences across the formal, informal, and hidden curricula. Support for international students should focus not on what they, as consumers, pay for, but what they, as people, deserve.


  1. Carolyn Walker says:

    This perspective on international students is long overdue.

  2. Denis Blight says:

    The case here depends very much on the phrase ‘premium tuition fee cost’ rather than full cost the term used at the foundation of international student recruitment elsewhere. The premium fee argument backs up claims about cross subsidy of domestic students and research.
    While I share concerns about any exploitation of international students I don’t think the opinions expressed in the article are backed by evidence. The full fee has to cover not only the direct cost of tuition but also institutional overheads including the need to invest in quality course development and in the kind of welfare measures called upon in the article.
    The same sort of costs have to be covered for domestic students through fees they are charged and exchequer subsidy. It is easy to see, how, if the subsidy claims were reversed support for international student recruitment would fall and claims for the imposition of quotas made. Careful review of this question in Australia led to an expansion of equity and merit based scholarship programs for developing country scholars funded from the Australian aid program. Unfortunately fiscal constraints have prevented those scholarships from being sustained. But that is a different situation.

    Overall, I am more concerned about the process of recruitment: how students are counselled, the accuracy of the information made available to them, the role of advisory and recruitment agencies and support for students to gain employment during their studies and upon graduation. All of that takes money.

  3. albert wright says:

    Many interesting thoughts in this paper, showing the importance of “delving deeper” to gain a wider understanding of the situation.

    It does seem that some overseas students are missing out and getting a poor deal in some aspects of under graduate experience and support by coming to the UK but I do not believe it is necessary, from a purely financial point of view, for Universities to invest in greater support.

    In relation to employment support, many UK employers with no global footprint are unlikely, other things being equal, to risk taking on an overseas student who is more likely to leave the UK sooner than average, given the restrictions imposed by Government on stays over 2 years post graduation.

    Given the market situation for overseas graduates, the UK is a strong contender despite the higher fees compared to UK students. Th e alternatives to the UK in the English speaking world such as Canada, USA and Australia are serious competition and we must not become complacent but the overall UK experience, for the moment, seems to work.

  4. John Brennan says:

    Excellent analysis. The international student experience can be ‘transformative’ for them! But it can also have positive impacts on home students and the UK universities. Not just in terms of money! The social experience of higher education is important. And widening it across national, social class and other boundaries can enrich it. But it can also be part of HE’s reproduction of inequalities! The richer classes are more likely to go international and benefit from it. Universities are more than businesses!

  5. Anusarin Lowe says:

    I agree that it is wrong for universities as charities to ‘export’ or ‘sell’ higher education as a good or service but the article’s argument is premised on universities operating with a mission to develop students, and contribute to the advancement in the society whereas in reality most universities globally now operate under profit-loss business model. OfS as regulator has made it explicit since its inception that ‘value for money’ is one of the key pillars in their strategy. Some international as well as native students also see themselves as paying customers. Some are not too concerned whether their experience is assimilative or transformative and tend to focus only on the eventual economic value of their degree. With such force of neoliberal capitalism that most have signed up to, the higher education sector will find it hard to shift their core value from pursuing growth and profit to focusing on humanisation.

  6. Eyal Clyne says:

    Very nice intervention. Thank you. Pathway providers, i.e outsourced contractors, are well invested, interested and protective in maintaining the discourse and practice, together with their collaborating ‘partnering universities’, and this ‘industry,’ which recruits students with various promises, is l due a closer inspection. Additionally, the dehumanisation of students as resources is particularly important, and it is also not without significant that the students are ‘Oriental.’

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