Education delivered by UK universities overseas accounts for less than 5 per cent of the country’s income from foreign students, according to an official analysis that raises doubts about ministers’ hopes that such activities could offer an alternative to bringing international learners to Britain.
While more than 700,000 people are currently studying for a UK degree or tertiary-level qualification outside the country, and the value of transnational education has increased by 56 per cent since 2010 to £550 million in 2014, it still represents only 4.2 per cent of all higher education exports.
According to a Department for Education report, UK Revenue from Education Related Exports and Transnational Education Activity 2010-2014, total higher education exports were worth about £13 billion to the UK economy in 2014.
Tuition fees and living expenditure linked to European Union and non-EU students coming to the UK accounted for the vast majority – £11.2 billion – of international income.
Independent schools based overseas, in fact, contributed more to UK exports than the transnational higher education sector, generating £900 million.
The new data, which valued total UK education exports at £18.8 billion in 2014, are likely to fuel debate about the economic importance of overseas students following the Conservatives’ pledge in their election manifesto earlier this year to introduce tougher visa rules for international students.
Ministers have frequently called for UK universities to expand their offshore provision, by setting up overseas campuses or offering more distance learning, saying that this would not be affected by such policies.
However, Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said that the latest DfE study shows that UK transnational education could never realistically replace lost income if the number of overseas students studying in the UK declined dramatically.
“It has often been argued by government that the UK should, in the face of tough visa restrictions, seek to grow foreign student numbers overseas, largely as an alternative to UK recruitment,” Mr Scott said.
“These data show that income and margins [from transnational education] are often more modest,” he said, adding that, in financial terms, “for UK institutions, and for the UK in general, [transnational education] can never be an alternative to recruiting increased numbers to the UK.”
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the UK had some 701,000 students “offshore” in 2015-16 compared with about 450,000 international students based in the UK. However, 45 per cent of offshore students – about 315,000 – are registered on a single accountancy course at Oxford Brookes University, where they pay only minimal fees throughout their distance-learning studies.
Mr Scott also pointed to the finding of a second DfE analysis released last month, which, he said, showed that “those on TNE programmes largely do not benefit from some of the wider aspects of a UK or international education”.
“There is minimal mixing with ‘international students’, only very modest intercultural learning, often reduced advice and support services and little contact or continuing contacts with the UK,” he explained.
“It suits some cohorts who cannot study ‘overseas’ and therefore has value and a place in the general ‘market’, but it is certainly no replacement for the wider experience of UK study.”