The Role of International Students in UK Universities

In recent years, the influx of international students into the UK has surged, prompting concerns about their impact on domestic students and the wider labour market.

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International Student Numbers on the Rise

Since 2010, international student numbers in the UK have seen a significant increase of up to 70%. This surge has coincided with a growing difficulty for students to secure entry into competitive universities. Simultaneously, tuition fees for domestic students have fallen by more than a quarter in real terms, while those for international students have soared, often exceeding double the UK level.

Foundation Courses and Entry Requirements

Critics argue that international students are gaining entry through "secret routes," particularly foundation courses with lower entry requirements. However, these courses are designed to prepare both international and domestic students from disadvantaged backgrounds for actual degree courses. The emphasis here is on preparation, not exclusivity.

Financial Incentives for Universities

Given the financial incentives, universities actively recruit international students, and foundation courses are just one aspect of this strategy. However, the evidence suggests that British students are not being excluded. Undergraduate numbers for both UK and international students have grown since 2010, with similar increases. The surge in international students has been more pronounced at the postgraduate level.

Economic Reality for Universities

With current tuition fee levels, universities often operate at a deficit for domestic students and an even larger one for research. International students contribute significantly to cover these deficits. Without this financial support, the higher education sector might shrink, rendering some universities financially unviable. In an economic landscape where "tradable services" are a bright spot, reducing reliance on international students seems impractical.

Impact on the Labour Market

Criticism extends beyond university dynamics to the wider labour market. The introduction of graduate visas since 2021 allows international graduates to stay and work for two years. Critics, labelling these as "Deliveroo visas," express concerns about graduates working in low-paid jobs.

However, evidence suggests that recent migrants from outside the EU are moving up the pay distribution range. While some recent graduates may indeed work in low-paid jobs, they contribute to the economy through taxes during these two years. The system enhances labour market flexibility lost after the end of free movement, and after two years, graduates must either secure a skilled work visa or leave the country.

Addressing Systemic Issues

The real issue lies not in international students crowding out domestic ones but in the overall sustainability and stability of a system heavily reliant on the high fees of international students. The reduction in domestic tuition fees has driven the increase in international student numbers. The challenge is not the students themselves but the systemic problems stemming from underfunding and neglect in government policies.

The discussion about international students should focus on addressing the root causes – the financial instability of the higher education system. Structural reforms and an infusion of new cash are essential to create a sustainable and balanced landscape for both domestic and international students.