UK universities ‘increasingly reliant’ on Chinese fee income

Chinese students worth at least £1.7 billion to sector, representing more than 10 per cent of revenue at several institutions 

January 23, 2020
Source: Reuters

Fee income from Chinese students is likely to account for more than 10 per cent of all income at a growing number of UK universities, according to a Times Higher Education analysis.

Across the sector as a whole, Chinese fees are likely to account for at least 5 per cent of all revenue.

The figures emerge as the latest data on student enrolments, released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, showed that growth in recruitment from China continued unabated in 2018-19.

More than 86,000 students from the country started courses in the UK last year, a 13 per cent increase on 2017-18 and a figure that is almost 50 per cent higher than in 2014-15. It means that more than a third (35 per cent in 2018-19) of all non-European Union students at UK universities are now from China.

To estimate the reliance on Chinese fees, THE analysed Hesa data on the number of students from the country at individual universities in 2017-18, the most recent year for which data are available at this level. Given the latest overall statistics, these are likely to be an underestimate of current institutional enrolments.

The data showed there were 13 institutions where at least 10 per cent of all students – whether undergraduates or postgraduates, domestic or international – were from China, led by the University of Liverpool with almost a fifth (17 per cent).

The numbers were particularly concentrated on master’s courses: at five universities, including Liverpool, half of all full-time postgraduate taught students were from China.

Looking East: Liverpool attracts big share of Chinese students

Chinese students chart

Taking the proportion of non-EU students at each university that comes from China and applying the same percentage to separate Hesa data on non-EU fee income gives an estimate of the income such students bring to individual institutions, although course mix might affect the actual figure.

It suggests that, overall in 2017-18, Chinese student fees were worth around £1.7 billion to UK higher education, around 5 per cent all income. At five institutions, the analysis indicated more than 10 per cent of all income came from such students.

Martine Garland, who interviewed senior leaders for a doctoral thesis on financial diversification in UK universities, said that the reliance on China was a worry that cropped up during her research.

“A number [of senior staff] in the Russell Group I spoke to said ‘we have concerns. We are not going to turn away anybody but we can see…there is a big risk there’” if students from China suddenly stopped coming to the UK for some reason, said Dr Garland, lecturer in marketing at the University of Gloucestershire who is soon to join Aberystwyth University.

She added that in some universities the concern was less financial and more linked to the experience that international students were getting.

One view expressed in her interviews was that “obviously going to university needs to be a very cosmopolitan, multicultural experience, but [these students] are choosing to come to a British university and there needs to be a balance”.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said his own view was that UK institutions were now too reliant on China.

“I don’t think fewer Chinese students should come here…it’s [just] regrettable that they are such a high proportion of the total,” he said, adding that there was always a risk that sudden changes in geopolitics could affect flows from a single country.

The increasing reliance on China could cause UK universities to start targeting India again for recruitment after the government announced in September that it would bring back post-study work visas – a major draw for students from the country.

Home Office figures released in November indicated that the announcement may already have boosted applications: the number of visa sponsorships issued by the sector to Indian students in the third quarter of 2019 was up 57 per cent on the year before.

However, the UK is likely to remain behind Australia in terms of reliance on Chinese students. One recent study estimated that the University of Sydney and UNSW Sydney drew more than a fifth of total revenue from Chinese fees.

Gavin Brown, Liverpool’s pro vice-chancellor for education, said that a big reason it was able to attract so many students from China was its partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University, with which it runs the joint Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University near Shanghai. Students on the campus can spend the last two years of their degree course in Liverpool.

“Our strategy deliberately aims to create a culturally diverse community of students who learn from, and with, one another,” Professor Brown said. “China is just one of many countries we currently target in order to recruit talented and committed students who will excel.”

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