Russell Group draws majority of fee income from overseas

Home fee income drops across English members of group, while overseas income up from £4 billion to £4.5 billion, THE analysis finds

February 12, 2024
Street performer entertaining people balancing on a ball  in Covent Garden Piazza to illustrate Russell Group draws majority of fee income from overseas
Source: Chris Harris/Alamy

Most of England’s Russell Group universities became even more reliant on international student fees last year, as home fee income dropped while overseas fee income rose from £4 billion to £4.5 billion, meaning those universities took 54 per cent of their total fee income from overseas students.

Managers said pandemic-driven shifts in home and international recruitment were key factors, along with the switch in the treatment of European Union students – from home to international fees – after Brexit, with the overall pattern being for home student numbers to be steady or increase.

But amid a growing sense of crisis in English university funding, the question of where institutions’ money comes from is politically important.

Analysis by Times Higher Education of English Russell Group universities’ 2022-23 accounts shows the biggest shifts in the home-international fee income balance were at the University of Birmingham (52.2 per cent of total fee income from overseas students, up from 44.8 per cent the previous year); the University of Liverpool (44.1 per cent, up from 36.7 per cent); and the University of Southampton (57.6 per cent, up from 51.8 per cent).

The universities taking the largest proportions of their total fee income from international students were UCL (overseas fee income of £640 million, or 68.9 per cent of total fee income); Imperial College London (£304 million, or 67.1 per cent); the London School of Economics (£184 million, or 62.5 per cent); the University of Manchester (£385 million, or 58.3 per cent); and Southampton (£207 million, or 57.6 per cent).

Across the 19 English members of the group of large research-intensive universities with published accounts, home fee income dropped slightly from £3.063 billion to £3.003 billion. Overseas fee income across those universities rose from £4.021 billion to £4.528 billion. That meant that the English Russell Group universities took 53.8 per cent of their total fee income from overseas students, up from 50.7 per cent the previous year.

Vice-chancellors have warned that the government’s decision to freeze the fee cap in England is forcing universities into ever greater reliance on international students, a “politically toxic” issue.

Not all English Russell Group members underwent such a shift: the universities of Oxford, Sheffield and Warwick saw growth in their proportion of total fee income coming from international students of below 1 percentage point. The universities of Cambridge and York saw their proportions drop (by 0.1 and 2.3 percentage points, respectively), the latter being the only English Russell Group member to see its total international fee income drop.

In terms of underlying factors in the shifting balance of fee income, teacher-assessed grades at A level and equivalent were used in English university admissions in 2020 and 2021, leading to an increase in the number of home students meeting tariff thresholds for Russell Group universities in those years – and a drop-off in those numbers in 2022 when standard grading returned.

Meanwhile, 2022 saw a big rebound in international recruitment after the pandemic as mobility increased.

A Liverpool spokeswoman said that in light of these factors, it was “misleading” to compare 2021-22 international and home student fee income with that in 2022-23. A comparison at Liverpool “pre- and post-pandemic is more representative, and this shows that our proportion of home students has increased from 70 per cent in 2019-20 to 73 per cent in 2022-23”, she added.

A Birmingham spokeswoman also highlighted those factors, adding that the university’s growth in overseas fee income also “reflects increased demand – particularly for postgraduate programmes”, EU students being treated as overseas students on fees, plus the “contribution from our new Dubai campus, which opened in 2022”.

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