UK university accounts show signs of ‘significant’ Covid risks

Some institutions warn of worst-case scenario of 50 per cent decline in international student revenue

December 23, 2020
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Details of how the downturn in international student recruitment is affecting some UK universities have emerged in the first tranche of financial statements to be published for the last academic year.

Some of the statements for 2019-20 talk about “expected” declines in international recruitment this year of up to 30 per cent while others set out “worst-case” scenario planning of income from overseas students dropping by half.

The vast majority of universities’ financial statements are normally published by the end of the year, although this year most are being delayed after the Office for Students extended the deadline for submission to the end of February.

However, by 14 December more than 40 institutions had published their accounts online, including some major research-intensive institutions that have historically recruited a large proportion of their student intake from overseas.

They include the London School of Economics, which says that although it was reporting an accounting surplus of £81 million for 2019-20, this was down to “three substantial one-off items” including a major donation.

“Without these items, there would have been an overall loss in 2019-20,” the report adds, reflecting the pandemic’s impact on income streams including summer schools cancelled by the LSE. Its accounts show a drop of £18 million in income from “other courses” in 2019-20.

It says that owing to the pandemic, the institution had developed an “emergency financial plan” based on a “plausible worst-case scenario” including assumptions that international student revenue would drop by half and income from home and European Union master’s students by 40 per cent.

The University of Liverpool, which before the pandemic had almost a fifth of all its students coming from China, is another institution to detail the impact of a downturn in international recruitment, saying it was a “significant financial risk”.

“Our plausible downside planning scenario includes significant shortfalls in international student fee income, research income and commercial income (including residential) over the next two financial years 2020-21 and 2021-22,” its report states.

“Overseas student recruitment has been particularly impacted by the pandemic, and although the full extent of the impact is still uncertain, we will see a reduction in overseas undergraduate and postgraduate intake over the coming years.”

The statement goes on to say that although one of its planning scenarios “shows significant potential loss of income, we will mitigate in part through cost savings, and our cash balances are such that we are able to continue to fund the remaining shortfall over the next two years”.

Other universities give specific figures on the expected downturn in student recruitment for this year based on the monitoring of new entrants.

They include the postgraduate-only Cranfield University, whose statement says that “at this time it is expected that international students enrolling will decline by 30 per cent from the 2019 levels”, although it adds that this was still dependent on factors including their ability to travel.

Another institution, Queen Mary University of London, says that actual student enrolment in the first semester of 2020-21 saw an “18 per cent reduction in postgraduate students offset by a 5 per cent increase in undergraduate students”.

However, it adds that new “January start programme applications look to offset any risk of attrition and reduced residencies in the short term”.

The first details from individual financial accounts come after the Office for Students warned that some universities were projecting falls in income from overseas students of more than 40 per cent in 2020-21.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UK universities plan for significant drop in international income

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