British universities are recruiting higher numbers of overseas students to boost their coffers amid accusations that institutions just seen them as “cash cows”.
New figures by Universities UK show that the proportion of students coming from outside the EU increased from 9 per cent in 2004-05 to 13.5 per cent in 2013-14.
In some subjects this is even higher, with just under a quarter of those studying engineering in 2013–14 from outside the EU.
The report follows complaints that universities are taking in international students, who pay 20 or 30 per cent more than home students on many courses, without the required level of English.
However, there are concerns that the overall share of international students coming to UK universities will continue to fall as immigration hurdles are putting off potential students who decide to go to places in America, Australia or Canada instead.
In an annual report on higher education in the UK, Paul O’Prey, chair of Universities UK wrote: “Students from outside the EU now make up 13 per cent of the student body, up from nine per cent in 2004-05.
“Behind this headline figure is a more complex story of shifting markets, with, for example, the number of students coming from India (the second largest source of international students for the past five years) falling by 49 per cent from a 2009-10 peak.
“This fall and the growing number of international students going to competitor countries is fuelling concern about the UK’s ability to attract international students.
“In 2011-12, non-EU student contributed £7.2 billion to the UK economy with their tuition fees, accommodation and off-campus expenditure”.
However, the figures were met with scepticism by the National Union of Students (NUS) and others who expressed concern foreign students are seen as “cash cows” but also are being used as “scapegoats” as the Government tries to bring migration figures down.
But the Chancellor, George Osborne, has indicated students may be excluded from official migration numbers.
Reacting to the figures, Mostafa Rajaai, NUS international students’ officer, said: “NUS is deeply concerned about the treatment of international students as they are often seen as cash cows by universities and scapegoats by the Government. They are facing increasingly unwelcoming immigration requirements.
“While institutions spend a lot of time and energy getting international students through the door, their experience once at university can be drastically different to what they were promised.
“Many universities and students’ unions run programmes and events to make international students feel welcome. But this does not outweigh the fact that they pay significantly more than home students and are often subject to yearly fee rises.”
Others echoed these concerns. Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “Vested interest is a major driving force in universities. They need money, and if not enough is coming from the Government or UK fees, they need to look elsewhere.
“It is natural to look overseas as universities can charge much more for an international student. But we shouldn’t determine entry by ability to pay.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “Higher Education is great British export. It’s very odd to criticise universities for using international students as cash cows. We don’t accuse Jaguar for selling cars to foreign buyers. We celebrate that they are buying the cars. We have a very good education and the world wants to buy it.”
On the figure that nearly a quarter of foreign students are studying engineering, he said: “This is because we arguably don’t have enough British young people with the skills to do engineering and other hard STEM courses.
“You need the hard sciences and good qualifications plus we need to look at making it an attractive proposition to men and women.
“If the international students were allowed to stay here, we could use their skills after they train up as engineers but we don’t make it easy for them to do so”.
Matthew Robb, a higher education expert at Parthenon Group, warned that the overall share of international students coming to the UK will fall because of the “onerous and arbitrary” screening process and this could lead to a hike in tuition fees for home students.
Mr Robb said: “We have increasingly onerous and arbitrary screening processes to stop people getting student visas. These are capricious in the way they are implemented. The Home Office, for example, will often create some nose at the start of the process with regards to problem with recruiting and then say there is no problem at all.
“We are seeing a once in a history expansion of higher education around the world with tripling of enrolment in emerging and developed markets”.
But he warned a drop in international students will undermined UK students’ university experience and will lead to a raise in tuition fees as half of Indian students now no longer come to the UK to study.
He said: “We are giving market share to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France…and we will see a further decline as other countries start to welcome foreign students.”
He said a drop in foreign students will mean “UK students will end up paying higher fees because currently international students subsidize their fees.
“Elite universities could also fall down the rankings because they are not investing in research as they otherwise would and in the long term we would lose out on our soft power and influence.”