The extent to which overseas students provide financial ballast in our higher education system has again been highlighted by the head of the University of Cambridge.
Any “shortfall in resources” after the coming general election, he said last week, would inevitably affect quality because Cambridge and its colleges could not “put in any more…than we already are to subsidise undergraduate education”.
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who made the remarks to the Financial Times, was speaking in the context of an election campaign that has put higher education funding firmly back on the agenda.
Despite assurances that the difference would be made up, Labour’s pledge to cut the tuition fee cap by a third has clearly rattled university leaders.
An overwhelming majority of Britons said that overseas students would give them a broader worldview and help to prepare them for their chosen career
The suspicion is that even if the forgone £3,000 is replaced, the multibillion-pound cost of the policy will hobble universities if they seek to lobby for additional funding or even to protect other vital existing budgets (at the time of writing, there is still no commitment from Labour or the Conservatives to maintain the coalition’s ring-fencing of the science budget).
This is an acute fear because the indications are that more cuts lie ahead, given the intention of all parties to continue on the path of austerity after the ballot in May.
Sir Leszek warned that a shrinking of resources would force Cambridge to consider the future of the one-on-one supervision model and, possibly, to cut overall student numbers, but – inevitably – it would also look at expanding the proportion of undergraduates from outside the European Union.
The changing make-up of taught postgraduate courses is highlighted in our news pages, with data showing that non-EU students now outstrip Brits in subjects including maths, computer science and engineering and technology.
The pros and cons of this shift are well rehearsed, but there is no doubt that the fees paid by overseas students prop up study at this level in some areas, and that universities will lean more heavily on them at all levels if the unit of resource is eroded.
What is discussed less often, beyond the general point that campuses and classrooms benefit from being melting pots, is how the changing demographics affect the educational experiences and expectations of home students.
This week, the Higher Education Policy Institute has published the findings of a survey of 500 young Britons applying to university.
There is broad agreement on the positives of sharing the lecture hall with students from abroad: an overwhelming majority (almost nine in 10) said that it would give them a broader worldview and help to prepare them for their chosen career, while three-quarters also thought it would help them to network. There was less agreement on potential downsides: just under a third thought that overseas students might slow down classes and monopolise lecturers’ time, but in both cases a significantly larger proportion felt that this would not be an issue.
The conclusion, clearly, is that it is not only universities that want overseas students on their campuses, but British students, too.
Given the relatively small number of Brits who venture abroad during their university years, this is also a way in which universities can bring the world to their students – visa regime willing, of course.