International students add an estimated £28.8 billion to the British economy, according to a recent Higher Education Policy Institute report, and make a vital contribution to UK higher education.
Not only are they essential to university finances, their presence on campus is part of higher education’s mission to embrace internationalism, globalism and diversity.
As a result, overseas student recruitment can be expected to be a recurring agenda item on university governance committees and, in an era of Brexit and Covid, a permanent feature on many risk registers.
UCAS figures published in early September show a mixed picture on overseas recruitment. As predicted, the impact on EU student number of removing eligibility to tuition fee loans is significant, with EU acceptances down by 56 per cent. Non-EU international student numbers look more buoyant with a 5 per cent rise in enrolments.
While the drop off in EU candidates is stark, a governor at one Russell Group university who spoke to Advance HE pointed out that those who do come to the UK this September are now paying full international fees, making up a proportion of the funding shortfall.
Universities are exploring ways to raise their profiles in Europe, while the British Council is endeavouring to tackle the decline with targeted events across the continent. It expects some 8,000 students from across the EU to join Study UK events in Europe in 2021 and 2022.
Institutions have embarked on a number of measures this summer to encourage international students to make the journey to the UK include chartering planes to transports Chinese students - who make up by far the largest group of international students in England at around 23 per cent. A number of universities are refunding £2,285 hotel quarantine bills to students from “red list” countries.
Governors who spoke to Advance HE are well aware of the extra support that international students may need once they arrive.
“Lots of those who arrive will not be vaccinated and it will be a matter of encouraging and facilitating early vaccine,” said one governor. “One of the justifications for charging international students more than home students is that there is a whole lot of bureaucracy associated with recruitment, making sure they have the right visas etc. Some universities will literally meet them at the airport.”
Office for Students guidance on supporting international students makes clear that accessible and targeted information and advice on issues such as accommodation and assessment are fundamental.
But one governor commented: “It’s not easy to know what the rules around Covid and travel are at any given moment. If you're an overseas student and isolated from support networks, it is all the more difficult. One of the main things is for us to communicate what is or isn't permitted in terms of government regulations or the institutions own regulations. It's a complicated picture and students might not always be best placed to work it out for themselves so we are helping them.”
Initiatives such as Sheffield University’s Global Campus have become even more important. Promoted through dedicated webpages, the initiative includes a Global Cafe on campus where “global champions” will help international students meet their peers. They also organise Friday socials where groups of overseas students can explore the city and enjoy activities.
Hardship funds have also been directed towards international students. The governor of a small, specialist performing arts institution in London, where just under a third of the intake are from overseas, described how hardship funding allowed students to pay for flights home during the pandemic.
For this institution, and many others, visa restrictions and compliance, particularly following Brexit, is an ongoing governance concern.
A recent UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) audit at the institution raised some “minor issues” but the subsequent message from the Home Office was “pretty harsh”. In particular, students being taught/tutored in a number of different locations, and not just on campus, was deemed an issue (covered in Student Sponsor Guidance issued by the Home Office in December 2020).
“UKVI is a big issue and the feeling is that regulations are much stricter,” said the governor. “We are spending money getting solicitors and advisors onboard and paying for extra hours for admin staff to make sure we are complying with all the detail. From an international point of view that is our biggest worry.”
The sector’s switch to online learning during lockdowns, and the digital expertise that has developed as a result, means many universities can now offer a quality distance learning option to international students who might want to delay travel or stay in their home country. But distance learning presents its own set of concerns. A governor at one rapidly growing private institution with significant numbers of remote learners said the greatest challenge was around wellbeing and continuation rates.
“Concerns are not really around delivering the learning, it is about how students are getting on in circumstances where they are not visiting the campus at all, particularly if their original intention was to take part in blended learning,” he said. “They may be in circumstances where they are isolated, not academically, but personally. So my concern, and a major focus for the university, is around wellbeing, which translates into progression, continuation and completion rates.”
Universities are offering diverse and inclusive online social programmes that provide opportunities for students to interact with friends, colleagues and staff, and give insights for institutions into the lived experiences of students and the challenges they face.
This new-found expertise in online learning also presents potential strategic opportunities to university governance to consider new business models. One governor of an alternative HE provider commented: “I think if you look at the big universities, they could use the whole pandemic and the move to online learning and the fact that most students were not on campus for most of the time last year, as a springboard to saying ‘actually we can cater for a lot more students than we can actually fit on campus’. I think there is a strong appetite to change the model in more online-friendly subjects.”
Universities have a strategic choice going forward, he added: “They can carry on with a highly restricted supply model of very tight admissions and a relatively small number of degrees each year that have huge value, or they can capitalise on more open, online provision. If they take a radically online approach, they could serve five or ten times more students than they currently do.”
While buoyant international student numbers are good news, China is an outsized player in the equation, exposing many UK universities to risks that could affect recruitment. In geopolitical terms, the UK-China relationship is increasingly fraught, and attention has recently been focused on claims that the Chinese Government is “buying its way” into British universities. According to governors, UK institutions have will need to tread carefully on the issue and must recognise the risks in engaging with China, as well as the opportunities.
“I think it’s legitimate to be a bit paranoid about the activities of the Chinese Government but that mustn’t spill over into any kind of unfair treatment or different treatment of Chinese students themselves. It’s a difficult line to tread,” one governor warned.
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