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Open door to study in Britain

24 November 2023

A sight now common in every city. Student apartments under construction, Traffic Street, Nottingham, June 2023, the fourth set in that street alone. Photo Alan Murray-Rust via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Universities have become increasingly reliant on overseas students. The number of students coming to study here has now reached an all-time high. Universities and government both welcome this, but it’s to the detriment of British students.

The upward trend in overseas students resumed after the coronavirus pandemic. Numbers have reached a record level of nearly 680,000 according to a report from the House of Commons Library released on 20 November.

Inexorable rise

The number of overseas students studying at UK universities has increased over decades, tripling in just over 20 years from 215,100 in 2000-01 to 679,970 in 2021-22, the most recent figures available. This inexorable rise has continued still regardless of the government in power.

International students now represent about a quarter of the total student population. In some institutions it’s much higher. At the London School of Economics two-thirds of the students are from overseas. And more than half the students at University College London and the University of the Arts London are from overseas.

‘International students now represent about a quarter of the total student population.’

The proportion of students coming from each country has changed. The number of students applying from EU countries was steady after the Brexit vote, but dropped sharply after 2020 from 98,000 to 48,000 two years later.

Non-EU students always made up the majority of those applying. The increase in their numbers more than compensated for the lower level of EU-based students. Chinese students are up by 87 per cent since 2011-12, at 99,965; those from India and Nigeria have increased by 433 per cent and 229 per cent respectively.

Deliberate and greedy

This is the result of deliberate government policy, coupled with the greed of university vice-chancellors. Overseas student fees are not capped as those of home students are, and can be as high as £50,000 a year. They represent an easy source of cash for universities seeking to balance the books.

The government launched an International Education Strategy in 2019. This seeks to increase the number of overseas students studying here each year to 600,000 by 2030. That target was met in 2020-21, when there were 605,130.

Market obsession

The University and College Union, representing lecturers and other academic workers, opposed reliance on the income from overseas student fees inherent in that strategy. It was on record as long ago as 2007 warning of the danger of obsession with the international student market at the cost of educational quality.

The Financial Times reported that in 2021 Russell Group universities in England only accepted 86,000 home students, the lowest level since 2014. These are the top academic institutions in the country; they take a disproportionately high share of international students.

The government sees this as positive – an “export” of services contributing to the economy. And universities see it as a boost for their “business”. But they seem less interested in providing higher education to British students, who are excluded from courses for which they are qualified.

No rooms

The effects of this expansion are felt in other ways too. The housing market in big university cities such as London and Manchester is distorted by overseas students. Ordinary students face a shortage of accommodation, with 2.4 students chasing every room.

And rents have risen sharply – by 14 per cent for university halls and 19 per cent for private sector accommodation. New luxury flats are constructed for overseas students from wealthy families. Student landlords nowadays are private equity corporations like Blackstone, a US-based “alternative investment management company”.

If we allow it, the situation will become even worse. Apart from unchecked immigration and an open door for overseas students, a demographic bulge means that the number of British 18-year olds will increase by more than 160,000 by 2030. They need opportunities for higher education.