Fragility in the system

International students add hugely to the richness of universities. But are the risks of relying on their fees to subsidise so much fully understood?

September 29, 2022
A pattern of condensation trails produced by aircraft engine exhausts, criss-cross the sky to illustrate Fragility in the system
Source: Getty

The fickle nature of international student flows has been one of the defining features of higher education over the past couple of decades.

All sorts of factors can and have caused outgoing students to redirect from one country to another, underlining the risks of relying too heavily on overseas fees to keep the lights on.

Yet, at times, that reliance – and the risk of undermining it – seems to be wilfully ignored.

Even after the shocks of the Covid years, and as inflation spirals, there is a tendency from some to talk down this crucial international export industry.

Note the return in the UK this summer of calls from one prominent MP for a cap on international student numbers, so that “first dibs” could be given to home students – overlooking entirely how those UK places are now subsidised.

Although the overall trajectory of international study has been one of growth in recent decades, the flows to different countries have been governed by a constantly changing mix of push and pull.

In our cover story this week, we take an in-depth look at how these factors have played out from the perspective of Australia, arguably the most aggressively marketised system of the lot.

There have been hiccups in Australia’s growth story even before Covid – in one illustration of how abruptly fortunes can change, numbers fell steeply after a series of xenophobic attacks on students from India, taking years to recover.

But despite such problems, Australian universities have over the years tapped ever harder into demand from Asia, benefiting in part from proximity, but also from increasingly generous post-study work rights.

Among the post-Covid questions raised in our feature, however, is whether we are now approaching a point where post-study visas are so generous that they will cease to be a mechanism by which countries can add additional incentives for potential students, and turn up or down demand.

Spending time at a UK university recently and talking to staff and students about what attracted them, it was clear that again there are both push and pull effects at play.

Students from Nigeria, for example, felt increasingly uncertain about the economic situation at home and that the UK was a better option both to study and build their lives longer-term.

The UK had an edge over other destinations for a whole host of reasons, including post-study work opportunities, but also the presence of Nigerian networks, family ties, even factors that might seem trivial such as the comparable time zone between the two countries.

The point is that the dynamics at play in the international student “market” are both complex and, in many cases, very personal to the individuals concerned, and can be as much about feeling a sense of belonging as some incremental improvement in one’s work rights four or five years into the future.

As the impact on Australian universities after those xenophobic attacks demonstrated, bad headlines or a sense that a country is no longer welcoming can have an enormous impact, and for a country such as the UK that is a lesson that should be well heeded.

Talk of international students being detrimental to UK students’ prospects is wrong-headed, and not just because if you talk to any group of students on any campus in 2022 they will tell you how much they value having a diverse and international community. The large numbers of international students on postgraduate taught courses are not competing for undergraduate capacity anyway.

That said, a funding system in which whole fields of study in some universities, whole cohorts of UK undergraduate students and even chunks of the research base, are underwritten by the fees paid by overseas students is hardly one to be celebrated.

As Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, put it when I asked him (for my last editorial) to reflect on the challenge facing science and research in the next couple of years, “no country which cares and is ambitious about its future economic prosperity, and cares about its security, would ignore the fact that a large share of its research base is currently financed by international student flows”.

But that is the system that the UK has at present, and MPs who talk down the part that international students play in the life as well as the economic viability of universities would do well to remember it – and perhaps even think about remedying it.

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