English universities are targeting the European Union for extra student recruitment when the cap on undergraduates is lifted next year, prompting critics to warn about the additional pressure on the student loans system.
James Pitman, managing director for higher education in the UK and Europe at Study Group, which runs centres preparing overseas students for degrees at 14 UK universities, told Times Higher Education that in preparation for the removal of caps in 2015 “some university partners…have proactively approached us and said ‘what can we do together in the EU?’”
Mr Pitman said the motivation for universities to recruit EU students was “volume, obviously; it’s revenue; it’s diversity in nationality”.
The number of EU undergraduates coming to English universities fell immediately after the introduction of £9,000 fees in 2012.
But numbers had already bounced back even before the removal of caps, rising 8 per cent this year, according to Ucas figures. That outstripped the rise in English-domiciled entrants to English universities, which rose by 4 per cent.
Many in the sector will welcome an increasingly international mix at English universities, but there will also be concerns.
Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said a “very significant group” within the student loans system is “the EU recruits who will prove difficult – and in some cases impossible – to track down as they begin to earn”.
EU students are entitled to government-provided loans to cover the cost of tuition fees.
According to figures released by the Student Loans Company in June, 11 per cent of EU students liable to repay income-contingent loans, and who are resident overseas, have not provided details of their income and have been “placed in arrears”, while a further 19 per cent are defined as “not currently repaying – further information being sought”.
The amount of outstanding debt among EU students with income-contingent loans grew five-fold from £46.8 million in 2009-10 to £257.7 million in 2012-13. Outstanding debt among UK and EU students overall grew from £20.7 billion to £33.5 billion over the same period.
Mr Pitman said that, in the past, universities had “positively dissuaded us from accepting EU students on to pathway programmes”, traditionally used for non-EU students.
Given that English universities do not have a history of recruiting from EU countries, Mr Pitman said it was “quite difficult for them to step up really quickly, which is why they are talking to us and no doubt, I’m sure, to Kaplan and INTO [two other private pathway providers] and others about how they can recruit more proactively from EU markets”.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, predicted in a report earlier this year that the removal of student number controls would increase incentives for EU recruitment – potentially putting the government’s higher education policy into contradiction with its policy to cut immigration.
Mr Hillman, who welcomed the prospect of greater internationalisation engendered by more EU students, said that the change would happen because “recruiting EU students is no longer a zero-sum game – each EU student no longer displaces each home student” and because “it is a potential mechanism to keep student numbers up, especially in particularly vulnerable courses, as demographic changes [in the UK] and the market take hold”.
He added: “I think the sector is taking its time to realise the opportunity but it is happening and is likely to take off properly when agents, alternative providers and pathway providers grab the opportunity with both hands.”
Nick Foskett, vice-chancellor of Keele University and co-editor of the 2010 book Globalization and Internationalization in Higher Education, said: “I think it is inevitable that UK universities will see the removal of the cap as a good opportunity to grow EU students.
“It has always been a frustration to most universities that they have been prevented from growing EU student numbers at undergraduate level significantly as part of their internationalisation agenda because of the limits of student number control.”
But he added: “Government will need to decide whether an increase in EU students suggests that a different approach to fee recovery is necessary.”
Sir David pointed out that the economic downturn had contributed to a lowering in forecast loan repayment rates of UK-based graduates.
He added that the EU graduate repayment issue “all adds to the precariousness – and in my view the unsustainability – of the system we have…and the ‘OMG what have we done?’ conversation I predict will occur inside whatever kind of government we form after the next election.”