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International students foot the bill for UK research

International students in the UK find out about postgraduate study opportunities. Photo: The PIE News

"Overseas students also play a critical role in supporting the financial sustainability of universities"

On average, each non-EU international student contributes over £8,000 to UK research, states the report, citing ONS statistics which are ‘available upon request’.

With no guarantee of the number of non-EU international students, the report reveals that any drop in international enrolments may harm the funding structure of research and development.

In the paper’s preface, HEPI director Nick Hillman states that not only does the UK government not fully fund university research, but “the shortfall is partly made up by international students, who pay more than the full economic cost of being taught”.

The paper points out that UK HEIs complete world class research, perhaps more than can be expected with the number of universities in the nation. But government research spending is seen to be “consistently below” the OECD average.

The latest HEFCE data shows the effect of low central government funding. Across 2014/15 there was a research deficit of nearly £3.3bn. That equates to 37% of all research income.

On average, each non-EU international student contributes over £8,000 to UK research

This funding gap is filled by the fees surplus as paid for by non-EU international students. Across the country, institutions make a 28% surplus on non-publically funded teaching, such as for non-EU students, which is then used to fund research.

The report compares the UK system to the Australian HE and research funding model, and points out that international students there have paid for research through their fees for many years.

In fact, the teaching surplus is so high that one in every five dollars spent on research is part of the cross-subsidy research funding that has hit 21%.

As fears of Brexit mount and global competition (especially from Australia) threatens the UK’s position as second most popular study travel destination, the report says “the UK is in danger of stagnation”.

A drop in international student numbers would have the knock-on effect of damaging research, due to the deficit created by the lack of fees paid.

Some argue that simply amplifying recruitment efforts to boost international students numbers in the UK is the cure for the research deficit.

It is not the first time international students have been floated as a potential aid to funding issues. Lord Adonis, for example, has said he’d like to see an increase in non-EU fee paying international students in order to subsidise lower or non-existent fees for UK-domiciled students.

Reacting to the report, the Russell Group’s head of policy Sarah Stevens praised the role international students play in the UK’s HE and research investment.

“Overseas students help to increase cultural diversity and enrich the learning environment at UK universities, meaning home students have the opportunity to develop internationally-relevant skills.”

She added that, “as HEPI’s report demonstrates, overseas students also play a critical role in supporting the financial sustainability of universities and underpinning the UK’s excellence in teaching and research.”

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