The current HE context has made it very clear that, while not all of their eggs are in one basket, a lot of universities’ financial position has been based on a heavy recruitment of international students. This has been part of a government strategy of funding less, in that the (exorbitant) international fees shore up losses elsewhere on overheads and administration, research and teaching. At the same time, a lot of universities have clearly overcommitted themselves by borrowing heavily against projected fee income in order to beautify/enlarge their campuses to attract more students.
Covid-19 and the International Student ‘Crash’
Covid and its attendant travel restrictions raise the very real risk that, in the first instance, international student numbers are likely to shrink dramatically for the 2020-21 academic year. This hits some universities harder than others; a casual glance shows that the ‘top’ universities recruit around a third of their student body from overseas. Even if they replace those ’empty seats’ with domestic students, their fee income will take a major hit because of the difference in fees.
We also have to ask where those ‘replacement’ domestic students will come from. It could be that they’re ‘poached’ from lower ranked universities – which, it should be remembered, aren’t any worse, in practice – leaving the less high status places to suffer. It would be unsurprising if this were to happen, there sadly seems to be little inter-organisational sympathy in UK HE. This could be a hammer blow for some but it would be an accident of inequality, history, and poor policy, not a sign of organisational failure. The government might like this option as it sharpens the sense that higher education is a market, but the impact on those students, staff, and the local area, would be disastrous.
It’s worth asking, too, where in the degree structure the pain will be felt the most. If we assume (and right now, it’s a big assumption) that most students will be distance learning until Christmas, this could hit Master’s applications – often a cash cow for universities – the hardest. Given that international students in part want to experience the host country, would they be willing to pay over the odds for three months of online teaching and then six months living overseas? It seems unlikely. Those looking at – or in the middle of – a longer course might be likely to stay the course.
Economic and Environmental Issues
We must assume, too, that the broader economic fallout from Covid will have an impact on the capacity for international students to pay for their overseas studies. Earnings and employment will take a hit, either for self-funding learners or for the parents of those who are supporting their offspring. We have seen this in the past; the 1997 Asian stock market crash impacted international student mobility and led to an increase in transnational education (TNE) where Western universities operate overseas campuses or have their courses taught by overseas providers – it’s the same degree, without the travel/cost, at least in principle.
Also, there’s an ongoing discussion as to the enormous carbon footprint of academic conferences but – and maybe I’m looking in the wrong places – there doesn’t seem to be as much thought given to the environmental impact of overseas study. The transport emissions of <checks notes> 340,000 international students travelling home, say twice a year – if they can afford it – must be huge. Could a greater awareness of environmental issues encourage international students to travel less? Might governments and universities also want to think carefully about this and act accordingly?
To some extent the powers that be seem more interested in the bottom line of the international student market than anything; it makes too much financial sense. What is far more important, though, (to me anyway) is that diverse university campuses can be enriching. It isn’t always, though, not least for international students who are not properly included in university life, or for staff or domestic students who miss out on getting to know them. It’s complicated; we need them financially (if only that weren’t the case) but we also want them intellectually and socially.
A Permanent Downhill Trajectory?
Have we therefore seen the peak of international students in the UK? Not only are the travel restrictions in place now, but people’s will and ability to travel, and travel far, may have weakened, perhaps permanently. How we look internationally in cost and political (as well as Covid) terms must also an issue – other countries are developing their international offer and potentially look more attractive on all counts. TNE might see major growth as it’s closer to home, but still an overseas degree, and often quite a bit cheaper in terms of fees and living costs – it has a smaller carbon footprint, too. Either way, something is going to give when it comes to student numbers; hopefully it isn’t staff jobs or student support and teaching.