Alexis Brown is Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI.
Another A levels results day has come and gone. Even before the results were in, it became clear that one of the abiding stories would be of international students edging out their domestic counterparts for places. Some even offered policy recommendations, such as a Telegraph op-ed arguing international student numbers should be immediately capped at 10%.
There is no substantial evidence that universities are making a concerted effort to choose international students over domestic ones, and this year’s results have done nothing to change that. There is, however, ample evidence of the damage that inflation is doing to the funding available for domestic teaching. Office for Students’ analysis showed that inflation has been steadily eroding the value of the domestic tuition fee since it was tripled in 2012, and that by 2023/24, funding levels will be almost what they were before the fee increase. And that was before the current cost of living crisis, which could devastate university finances.
The calls for a cap on international students feel a bit perplexing then. After all, international students did not triple the tuition fee while cutting the grant income in 2012, opening up universities to the whims of market forces. International students did not freeze the tuition fee cap ever since (save a small rise in 2016), allowing inflation to slowly erode its value over the past decade. If this erosion is now being accelerated at a rapid pace because of the fee freeze and the cost of living crisis, again, international students are hardly to blame for this (nor are universities for that matter). Even in 2020, before the crisis, Office for Students analysis argued that universities faced per student deficits across all subjects. You can’t chronically underfund domestic teaching for years (not to mention research) and then be surprised when universities try to make up that funding elsewhere.
Precisely because of the differential fees, however, this is not a zero sum game; if international students are creating income to help subsidise these diminishing resources, that’s helping domestic students, not hurting them. Wantonly reducing the number of international students in this country would not only cripple the research base (but who needs vaccines anyway) – it would make it harder for universities to use these funds to subsidise domestic teaching, as they are increasingly having to do.
Simply reducing the number of places going to international students does not guarantee that those places will go to UK students instead. As domestic teaching increasingly becomes a loss-making activity, it might only mean there are fewer places in general. If the Government has seemed indifferent to this possibility – indeed, if their prior rhetoric around ‘too many youngsters going into higher education’ and proposed minimum entry requirements make it seem like they are positively in favour of fewer places – well, that’s hardly the fault of international students either.
There are reasons to be wary of the sector’s increasing reliance on international students – not least because of the vulnerability it builds into the UK’s world-leading research base. But the maths is not as simple as some of the headlines this week made it seem. It is easy to caricature universities as greedy, callous institutions bent on increasing their income from wealthy international students to the detriment of students in the UK. The truth is a bit more complicated.