Universities 'may be at risk' due to reliance on Chinese students

14 May 2020, 05:48

International students pay higher fees than UK students
International students pay higher fees than UK students. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Universities in Britain could be at risk amid the Covid-19 pandemic due to their "over-reliance" on Chinese students, a report has warned.

A growth in foreign students attending UK universities has been largely driven by international students from non-EU countries, like China, according to a study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

For the year 2017-18 students from China made up 38 per cent of the non-EU international numbers with China sending more postgraduate students to the UK last year than the 14 next-ranked countries combined.

Chinese students dominate master’s courses at some universities, which will struggle financially next year with the coronavirus outbreak. “Such heavy reliance on a single country exposes universities to greater risk from geopolitical events,” the Time reported.

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A paper, published by Hepi, looks at how postgraduate education in the UK changed in the decade after the 2007-8 financial crash, when many sought to further their studies amid economic challenges.

It finds that a higher proportion of postgraduate students are female compared to the past, but women with these qualifications still earn 14% less on average than men with the same level of qualifications.

Overall, white men from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to undertake postgraduate study. Among UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants from the poorest areas, only 36% are men, the paper finds.

The report shows that UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants increased by 10% between 2008-9 and 2017-18, but student numbers from overseas grew faster. Non-EU international student levels grew by 33%.

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On international students, the report warns: "While the high levels of participation by Chinese students have provided much-needed stability to postgraduate numbers and fee income, the sector's over-reliance on one particular country represents a risk factor."

It adds that Covid-19 has led to English proficiency exams required for new entrants being suspended within China and UK universities setting out plans for Chinese students to delay enrolling in the autumn.

Dr Ginevra House, the author of the report, said: "When writing this report, the Covid-19 pandemic had yet to reach its current height, but the risk posed by universities' increasing reliance on international students was evident.

"The crisis is providing a timely reminder of the importance of a diverse and balanced student body to weather future shocks to the system, supported by government policies that foster international co-operation and mobility of the world's brightest."

It comes after a survey from UK graduate jobs website Prospects last week suggested that nearly half of final year students are now contemplating studying a postgraduate course amid Covid-19.

The poll, of more than 1,000 final year students, shows that 58 per cent are putting gap year and travel plans abroad on hold and 47 per cent are now considering studying a masters, PGCE or PhD course.

Claire Sosienski Smith, the National Union of Students (NUS) vice president (Higher Education), said: "We know that postgraduate study brings benefits, but as the report shows, these are still unequally distributed and exacerbated by gendered pay gaps in the workplace."

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), said: "This report shows how students and society benefit from postgraduate education.

"It highlights the importance of improving access to postgraduate courses for those groups where participation is especially low."

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: "Despite the current uncertainty as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important that postgraduate and lifelong learning opportunities, as well as upskilling and reskilling, continue to increase.

"Undertaking postgraduate study would be a positive option for individuals and the economy, with skilled graduates playing an important role in the recovery of the UK and in helping to rebuild the economy."