UK numbers boost masks uncertainty over international students

‘Bizarre situation’ where universities are full but still financially constrained, one expert has warned

September 12, 2020
Source: istock

Although there was an increase in the number of UK students who will be attending university in the coming academic year, it does not mean a financial crisis has been averted, experts have warned.

Ucas data showed that, on 7 September, the last date that final offer conditions must be met, a record 508,090 students have been placed at UK providers, a 3.5 per cent increase on the previous year.

It appears that students were not put off attending university because of safety fears or the prospect of being taught mainly online. Furthermore, lower-tariff institutions did not lose a huge proportion of students to higher-tariff institutions, even after the UK government performed a last-minute U-turn to allow students to use their centre-assessed grades and removed student number controls.

While high-tariff institutions have had a bumper year and increased their numbers by 11 per cent, mid-tariff institutions also increased their placed applicants by 0.8 per cent and low-tariff universities dipped only slightly, by 0.4 per cent. All types of institutions increased their numbers of UK students.

However, experts said that these rosy figures masked more nuanced issues for the sector.

Mark Corver, founder of the consultancy firm DataHE, warned that “across the sector there will be people who are up and down”.

That “medium- and lower-tariff [institutions] have increased their UK numbers is encouraging for them”, although “if the government had got behind the sector earlier, by allowing early confirmation and suspending the number controls, a lot more UK students could potentially have been taken in (virus-reduced capacity permitting) as the demand was there”, he said.

In terms of international students, EU student numbers were down by 5 per cent, but non-EU student numbers were up 7 per cent. However, only higher-tariff institutions were up on non-EU international students – by 15 per cent – while both mid- and low-tariff institutions were down, by 7.5 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively.  

Again, experts warned against taking these figures at face value. Richard Harvey, academic director of admissions at the University of East Anglia, said: “No one will really know their position on international students until mid-October.

“This is a bizarre situation where many universities are full but are still in a financial straitjacket, because we don’t know if international students will actually turn up.

“We’ve seen some international student scholarship agencies wrongly interpret the latest six-person rule to mean that the UK is dangerous. So, we are still likely to see universities, even Oxbridge, posting losses. Especially as so many incurred massive extra costs during lockdown. Given that margins are tight, the consequences are obvious.”

At many high-tariff institutions, international students provide a huge proportion of income, while Mr Harvey added that universities that are heavily dependent on clearing would be feeling the pinch this year.

Mr Corver added that international students have been the only group to increase their deferrals, up from 1,430 last year to 2,700 this year. EU students have not, which he speculated could be down to fee changes in 2021 outweighing their travel concerns. “All eyes will be on whether these students now turn up,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Hopefully they will be able to avoid those ghastly‘Pathways’ providers who run dodgeball rip-off programs.

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