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UK uni funding model “inherently precarious”

With international student enrolment likely to fall dramatically this year, UK universities can no longer rely on overseas fees to fill government research deficits, the president of King’s College London has said.

Researcher working in a lab in a UK University.17 British institutions make the top 100 of QS World University Rankings, second only to the US.

“Talking about international students gives the appearance that we are more devoted to the world beyond our borders than our own country but really the opposite is true”

The president of KCL, Shitij Kapur, has said that the unstable funding equilibrium of UK universities is being maintained by an “inherently precarious” model which is dependent on international student fees. 

In a panel discussion on February 7 following the publication of his paper, UK universities: from a Triangle of Sadness to a Brighter Future, Kapur said that the future of the UK’s scientific research cannot be left to the decisions of “well-off families in Delhi and Beijing.”

“Universities have sustained themselves by increasing the number of international students, but this is getting caught up in immigration debates,” said Kapur.

The UK has the lowest contribution to higher education of any OECD country. In England, the annual £9,000 fee for domestic students set in 2012 at its current value is worth around £6,000 in 2023. 

The surplus income from overseas students who pay on average £22,000 per year has allowed UK universities to maintain research programs and international rankings.

However, universities risk becoming overdependent on this income stream with international student numbers predicted to drop.

As reported by The PIE in December, the latest real-time sample data in the UK is forecasting dramatic falls in international student numbers for the January 2024 intake when compared with January 2023.  

Currently, only 80% of government-sponsored research is funded by the government, with the remaining 20% coming from teaching income and other resources. 

In 2021, the higher education sector spent £5.6 billion of its own money on research and development. 

Due to UK universities’ dependence on fees from abroad, chief executive of Universities UK Vivienne Stern warned that the government can’t afford to make the UK any less attractive to international students if it is to maintain its reputation for delivering quality higher education. 

“Talking about international students gives the appearance that we are more devoted to the world beyond our borders than our own country but really the opposite is true,” Kapur said.

Writing in the FT on December 3, Kapur called on the government to fund the complete cost of research it supports and ensure that domestic fees are not eroded by inflation.  

His comments follow a report by The House of Lords which found that the government is failing to act on the looming financial crisis facing the higher education sector.

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