As the coalition’s tougher visa regime bites and undergraduates are saddled with more debt, now might not seem an opportune time to launch a recruitment drive for international and postgraduate students.
But Aberystwyth University has announced that over the next five years it will do just that: by 2017 it aims to have tripled the number of international students on its taught programmes and boosted its postgraduate intake by 250 per cent.
The bold plans, outlined in Aberystwyth’s Strategic Plan 2012-2017, might go against the grain of recent trends in the sector, but the university has argued that such targets are possible as it is starting from a low base of student numbers.
Statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency released in January show that the number of overseas students in the UK in 2011-12 increased by just 1.5 per cent year on year, suggesting that the long boom in this area may be stalling.
In the same year, the number of Britons starting postgraduate courses fell by about 8 per cent, while non-European Union enrolments dropped by 2 per cent.
But April McMahon, appointed Aberystwyth’s vice-chancellor in August 2011, told Times Higher Education that she would rather adopt “stretching” targets that might be missed than aim too low.
Regarding the international student target, she said that the university had not experienced the growth enjoyed by much of the rest of the sector. “The target in percentage terms is just putting us where we should be for the kind of university we are,” she said.
The figures bear this out: just 4.6 per cent of the West Wales institution’s undergraduates are from outside the EU, compared with the UK average of 7.4 per cent. When it comes to postgraduates, 17.8 per cent at Aberystwyth are international, against 28.2 per cent nationwide.
Professor McMahon said that the university had good alumni links to some countries, for example Malaysia, that could be used to boost numbers.
“It’s not as if we’re doing no business [at the moment],” she said.
The international recruits would not be used as a “cash cow” and the university would offer bursaries and scholarships for the most promising, she explained.
As with international students, Aberystwyth is starting from a “low base” in postgraduate terms, she acknowledged. Postgraduates make up 22.8 per cent of the UK’s higher education body as a whole, but in Aberystwyth the figure is 15.3 per cent.
The university has good teaching and research, Professor McMahon argued, but not enough of the postgraduate “glue” that binds them together.
By 2017 the university aims to be top of the National Student Survey for satisfaction, says the Strategic Plan, which was launched in February (in 2012, it was 64th among higher education institutions).
Professor McMahon said the target could be hit by bringing teaching rooms “up to scratch” and building new accommodation.
Aberystwyth aims to record a budget surplus of 3 per cent by 2015 and 5 per cent by 2017 to fund building projects to make up for cuts in capital funding from government sources, she added.