A weak pound and an economic surge among emerging nations could lead to a healthier overseas market for UK universities in 2010, according to an economist.
Robin Bew, editorial director and chief economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, discussed the impact of the global recession on UK universities' overseas recruitment at the British Council's Education UK Partnership conference in Edinburgh last week.
The abiding weakness of the pound in 2010 would ensure the UK remained a "relatively affordable place to come and study" for some overseas students, Mr Bew said. While gross domestic product would remain static overall in developed countries, there would be strong growth in most emerging markets, he added.
"That generates income and for families overseas it means it is more affordable to look at foreign education as an option."
Mr Bew said the exchange rate would not suit everyone - Chinese students, who come to the UK in larger numbers than any other group, would be hobbled by the weakness of their currency in 2010, he suggested. But overall, the outlook for UK institutions is "not so bad".
"Many of the markets in which you are fishing will be quite strong, and because of the weak pound the courses that you are offering will look like quite good value," he told delegates.
"Of course, it is up to us to get the rest of it right: the visa restrictions, the quality of education that we provide - those are things that your colleagues in central government or you in your educational institutions have to worry about.
"But in terms of the economics at least, I think the story next year in terms of foreign-student recruitment will be a little bit better than this year."
The Education UK Partnership provides expertise to help universities and other institutions build international links.
FEARS OVER STUDENT-VISA REVIEW
Concern is rising over a review of the new points-based immigration system aimed at reducing the number of overseas students in the UK.
Under plans to lift the minimum level of course for which visas would be issued, the Government is considering withdrawing access to student visas for those taking A-level or foundation courses. Other proposals include mandatory English testing and a ban on students working part time.
The review provoked strong opposition at the British Council's Education UK Partnership conference.
Delegates said the current system enabled overseas students "to go on from A level to universities and to contribute substantially to the UK economy".
But Barbara Woodward, international director at the UK Border Agency, said there were "very real concerns about some areas of abuse".
Study Group, one of the UK's largest private providers of education to overseas students, said that the flow of about 1,850 students from its study centres to UK universities each year would dry up if the plans were implemented.