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UK international student fee markups “problematic” – IHEF 2023

International student fee markups reaching 400% of the actual cost of delivery are “morally problematic”, the director of a London university has said during a discussion on the financial sustainability of UK institutions. 

Panellists debated fees, brain drain and the role of universities in humanitarian crises at a UUKi's conference. Photo: Pexels

41% of the UK’s international students came from China and India in 2021/22

Adam Habib, director of SOAS, criticised the UK’s higher education system for ‘exploiting’ international students, saying at the International Higher Education Forum 2023 that the system is “broken in severe ways”. 

Leaders from the international education sector debated higher education’s reliance on international students during the two-day online conference run by Universities UK International

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of UUKi, told attendees that universities have “kept the lights on” by recruiting international students and entering into commercial partnerships. 

“There’s certainly a debate to be had over whether the current approach is sustainable over the long term,” he said. 

Habib argued that the model was morally and commercially “problematic”. 

“We don’t tolerate private sector companies having markups of 200/300/400%,” he said. “We say that we want international students because of their cultural and social value, but I can tell you, nobody in the South really believes it.” 

Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia, argued that while the sector needs to take ethics into consideration, “at the same time, it’s a market”.

“Students choose to go [to] the place where they think they’ll get the most benefit out of,” she said, adding that it is “absolutely true” that some of those fees subsidise research, but that international students also take part in and benefit from university research.

“Doesn’t mean we in Australia don’t need to have a look at that and try and rebalance so that we’re not so vulnerable, so that the load of that funding is not falling on the shoulders of those students,” Jackson said. 

Habib also argued the UK should be “very worried” about the country’s reliance on India and China for students, with some 41% of the UK’s international students coming from China and India in 2021/22. 

“If the Indian government and the Chinese government were to close the taps on international students, what effectively happens is something like 75% to 80% of British higher education institutions will collapse,” Habib said, describing this as an “astonishing risk”. 

Panellists at UUKi’s discussion of financial sustainability

Arrowsmith said there had been diversification “at the sector level” and that there was “widespread recognition of the risks of overreliance on students from a single market”.  

Speaking on a later panel, Steve Smith, UK government international education champion, told the conference there had been “extraordinary increases in new diversifying markets”, including India, Nigeria, Pakistan and the US. 

“The appetite to engage with the UK is absolutely tremendous,” Smith said, discussing his own work supporting the UK’s education exports. 

Panellists also debated the issue of brain drain. With most students leaving the UK after their studies, Arrowsmith said we are seeing “brain circulation, not necessarily brain drain”, particularly at undergraduate and postgraduate-taught level. 

But Habib didn’t “buy” this, citing a study that found 80% of Indian students who went overseas were no longer in India five years later. 

“I think brain circulation is a terminology that has emerged in Northern higher education systems to legitimise what is an astonishing short-sighted agenda of draining talent out of the South,” Habib said. He added that brain drain is preventing countries in the Global South from developing solutions to the local impact of problems like climate change. 

“We don’t tolerate private sector companies having markups of 400%”

Jackson said the sector must be pragmatic in satisfying the global desire for education. 

“Part of the reason we’re working so closely with India is they’ve so clearly articulated what they want,” she said. “They want their country to be more productive, more advanced. 

“They want… millions of kids to be educated in a really short period of time. And they want our assistance in doing that.”

During the event, representatives also discussed the role of universities in responding to humanitarian crises. ‘Funmi Olonisakin, vice-president international, engagement and service at King’s College London, called for a ‘radical’ shift to reach those in need, including delivering “wholesale” education to lower-income countries. 

“Give world-class education that will be life-changing to those people on-site, but train thousands of teachers, of academics too, but for teaching in those places,” Olonisakin said.

“Are we writing ourselves out of business? No we’re not, actually. We’re contributing and serving those societies by building quality that looks like ours, because our campuses will still be full of students at the end of the day.”

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