Over-reliance on China and India leaves UK universities ‘exposed’

Governments could bankrupt three-quarters of institutions by blocking students from travelling abroad, says vice-chancellor

February 28, 2023
Source: iStock

The UK is exposing itself to “astonishing risk” by being over-reliant on China and India for international students, according to a vice-chancellor.

Adam Habib, the director of SOAS University of London, warned that if governments in these countries were for some reason to “turn the taps off” and stop their students travelling abroad to study, it would cause “75 to 80 per cent” of British higher education institutions to “collapse”.

That risk was just one of the reasons why the UK model for providing education to those from overseas was “broken and unsustainable”, Professor Habib told the International Higher Education Forum 2023, organised by Universities UK International (UUKi).

He also issued a warning about the threat from private sector companies intent on “disrupting the model” and accused UK universities of “accelerating brain drain”, which he said would leave some countries unable to confront the global challenges the world faces.

Professor Habib, a former vice-chancellor of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, said people in the Global South did not believe assertions that Western institutions wanted to attract students from abroad for their “cultural value”, but instead felt that they were being exploited.

Addressing these issues required a discussion about different business models and an “honest and bold conversation”, but he said he had found since moving to the UK that many of his peers were reluctant to take this up.

The latest data show that China and India account for 51 per cent of students who were granted visas to study in the UK in the year to September 2022, with Indian students outnumbering their Chinese colleagues for the first time.

Appearing at the same conference, Jake Foster, the chief commercial officer of consultancy AECC Global, said its research had shown that India was still the country with the largest appetite for campus-based UK master’s programmes, but interest had dropped off by 18.5 per cent.

This was counterbalanced to a degree by a rise in demand from countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Ghana, Mr Foster said. But the UK was facing increased competition from Australia, where conditions have been made more favourable for those from abroad, and students were making their decisions based on job opportunities, course costs and the length of graduate visas.

Alex Ellis, the British High Commissioner to India, said there were still “huge opportunities” for UK universities in the country, in terms of both partnerships and recruitment.

But institutions would have to be patient and persistent because it could take a decade to have an impact, he said.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of UUKi, said there was among the UK sector widespread recognition of the risks of over-reliance on single markets and there had been a diversification at a sector level, if not yet in all institutions.

But Catriona Jackson, chief executive and board director of Universities Australia, said there was bound to be a reliance on China and India because “they have a huge number of people”.

She added: “Part of the reason we are working so closely with India is they have so clearly articulated what they want. They want their country to be more productive, more advanced; they want hundreds and hundreds and hundreds – in fact, millions – of kids to be educated in a short space of time, and they want our assistance in doing that.”

She warned that things were “shifting so fast” and that it would not be long before these countries would be able to educate all their young people themselves, without needing to send so many abroad for study.


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