The share of taught postgraduate qualifications going to UK students has fallen from two-thirds to just over half as overseas students make up a growing proportion of classes, an analysis by Times Higher Education has revealed.
In four subject areas in 2013-14, the number of such awards going to students from Asia alone outstripped those going to UK students.
Some academics warn that such an increasing dependency on overseas students carries major risks, while others say that their fee income is providing institutions with “vital” funding.
The analysis is based on previously unseen data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency that describe the number of postgraduate awards by subject and home region for 2003-04 and 2013-14.
The total number of students awarded postgraduate taught qualifications increased by 43 per cent, from 163,675 in 2003-04 to 233,245 in 2013-14. But there were different rates of growth in the number of awards going to students from various regions.
The number of awards going to students from the Middle East almost tripled, for example, and the number of qualifications for students from Africa and Asia more than doubled.
Although awards for students from the Middle East and Africa still make up a small proportion of the overall total, qualifications gained by all non-European Union students grew by 120 per cent compared with an increase of just 14 per cent for home students.
Courses in mathematics, creative arts and design, as well as subjects allied to medicine and architecture, building and planning saw particularly strong growth in awards going to non-EU students.
In five subject areas the proportion of taught postgraduate awards going to non-EU students in 2013-14 exceeded that going to home students. These were maths, computer science, engineering and technology, business and administrative studies and mass communications and documentation.
For all these subjects – except mass communications and documentation – the number of such qualifications going to just Asian students outstripped that for home students.
A decade earlier, only engineering and technology courses had a higher proportion of taught postgraduate awards going to non-EU students than to home students.
Waning appetite for a master’s?
Alan White, director of research at Anglia Ruskin University, said that the UK numbers could be falling because students were reluctant to take on more study-related debt.
“It could be that the labour market has been such that undergraduates see no utility in gaining a master’s,” Dr White added.
The consequences of this decline could be that some parts of the higher education system will “become dependent on non-UK students for their business model”, he said. Unless institutions can identify new markets, this could lead to a “struggle” when overseas student numbers decline. “As the nations of the globe become more ‘mature’ in terms of their ability to homeproduce the skills required for a globalised economy, those markets will become ever scarcer,” he added.
There has been a marked decline in UK students in computer science over the past 10 years. Awards to home students in 2013-14 were roughly half the number for 2003-04, while non-EU awards in the field have continued to grow.
John Derrick, head of the department of computer science at the University of Sheffield, said that universities were putting themselves at risk by relying too heavily on international students. Government changes to student visa regulations, for example, could lead to a loss of fee income and, potentially, the closure of courses, Professor Derrick said.
“One bad newspaper report in…India…can really depress the number of students applying to the UK”, he said, adding that international students are a “vital source of university finance” in computer science.
Reliance and adaptation
Angus Laing, chair of the Association of Business Schools and dean of business and economics at Loughborough University, said that such dangers of over-reliance had already been seen in his subject area.
Professor Laing said that some “well-established pre-92” business schools had gone from seven-figure surpluses to seven-figure deficits because of recent problems surrounding the student visa regime. However, Iain MacRury, deputy dean of research and professional practice at Bournemouth University’s Faculty of Media and Communication, said that universities were not relying on international postgraduates, but instead “adapting to market demand”.
Anthony Finkelstein, dean of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London, said that international students provided a “vital funding component” for engineering and technology courses.
“The high fees allow us to redirect funding elsewhere both to sustain research excellence in UK universities and to allow, in some cases, [lower fees for] UK students,” Professor Finkelstein said.