Leader: No returns on the overseas route

August 11, 2006

UK universities increased their already considerable income from overseas students by more than a quarter last year, our analysis of fees data shows (page 2). At a time of serious pressure on budgets throughout higher education, this is good news. But it is also unsettling news, as it demonstrates growing dependency on a volatile income stream. The Higher Education Policy Institute reminded us earlier in the year how vulnerable some universities had become to a sudden drop in overseas enrolments.

Prudent budgeting demands that any such risk is taken into account: currency fluctuations, political upheavals and even pandemics can all switch off important sources of students alarmingly quickly. But what is the alternative for universities? They are told to rely less on state support, and while many are bringing in much larger sums than hitherto from outside contracts and donations, neither source yet compares with the £1.4 billion raised from overseas student fees.

Not all the signs have been favourable for UK higher education: its market share has been dropping as competition has grown. Australian universities are famously proactive recruiters overseas, some institutions elsewhere in Europe have woken up to the possibilities and those in the US are trying hard to make up three years' lost ground. US graduate schools this week reported 12 per cent increases in international applications and enrolments, with substantial growth in the numbers coming from China and India.

Student mobility is predicted to grow further over the coming decades. And given the huge natural advantage conferred by the English language and the continuing high reputation of UK universities, it would be perverse to rein back international activities. The greatest danger lies in overreliance on a single country or region, rather than on overseas students in general.

But if universities are to pursue the international route, it must be in a professional and open manner. Not only must they support foreign students effectively, but the rationale behind the balance of places must be open to scrutiny. With the immigration debate intensifying, it is only a matter of time before the spotlight falls on supposedly lost opportunities for home students and the impact on course quality.

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