Fee freeze ‘risks exacerbating’ shift away from UK undergraduates

Warning comes as data on English student numbers suggest institutions growing international master’s cohorts

March 2, 2022
Workman moves a road diversion sign Fee freeze ‘risks exacerbating’  shift away from UK undergraduates
Source: Alamy

A further freeze of the undergraduate fee cap is likely to “exacerbate” incentives that may already be leading English universities to shift recruitment away from UK bachelor’s degree students, observers have warned.

Data released by the Office for Students estimating student numbers at English universities this year suggest that several institutions have seen major increases in international master’s entrants.

According to an analysis of the Higher Education Students Early Statistics (Heses) survey data by Times Higher Education, numbers of non-UK full-time entrants on traditional one-year master’s courses are expected to double at about a dozen institutions, and to rise by more than 10 per cent at 30 other universities.

At the same time, the number of full-time UK undergraduate entrants is estimated to fall by more than 10 per cent at more than 20 universities this year, according to the survey data.

Heses data might not always completely reflect final enrolments – especially with the increase in distance learning resulting from the pandemic and different start times – and there is also evidence that some institutions have still recruited strongly among UK domestic undergraduates this year.

However, this is not the first time that there has seemingly been a drift towards more postgraduate recruitment in recent years. There have also been repeated warnings that the freeze in the undergraduate tuition fee cap at £9,250, particularly against the backdrop of high inflation, could be undermining universities’ economic incentive to enrol UK undergraduates.

Alexis Brown, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the Westminster government’s decision to freeze fees in England until 2024-25 could “exacerbate” the “financial dilemma” faced by institutions struggling to cover the growing cost of domestic teaching.

“This freeze also raises questions about how universities will financially accommodate the demographic uplift in 18-year-olds over the next decade,” she said.

Mark Corver, co-founder of the consultancy dataHE, said “government policy on funding higher education may be unwittingly creating incentives for universities in their recruitment that are counter to the long-term national interest”, stressing that this also might include policies from devolved administrations.

“Across the UK, through a mixture of number controls and, increasingly, fee caps, governments have been progressively reducing the incentives for universities to serve” domestic full-time undergraduates, Dr Corver said.

“International and postgraduate taught courses have far higher fees per student, and no restrictions on recruitment numbers. Governments are sending a strong signal to universities: take fewer UK [bachelor’s degree students]; recruit more postgraduate and international. The recent rapid erosion of the value of the benchmark £9,250 fee by high inflation has accelerated this.”

Dr Corver also warned that a focus on one-year international master’s students “means that universities are being driven to take on much more operating risk than is the case” with domestic undergraduates.

“That will cause problems eventually,” he said, while it would also “be a peculiar strategy to end up forcing universities to preferentially focus on equipping the workforces of economic competitors if it were to the detriment of the skills potential of the UK graduate workforce”.

Individual examples of institutions that appear to have seen a boom in international master’s entrants this year include the University of Hull, where Heses data show a rise from 140 students to 1,400, and Sheffield Hallam University, which reported an almost fourfold rise from 760 to almost 3,000. Both institutions recorded a fall, albeit a lot smaller in percentage terms, in UK undergraduate entrants.



simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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