Calls for funding rethink in UK as UCAS int’l applications up and domestic drops

International undergraduate applications made via the service have almost returned to pre-Covid 2019 figures when UCAS received 138,770 international applications. The figures come as anti-immigrant politicians are pressing the government to reduce international student numbers in the UK and universities are accused of favouring international students ahead of domestic applicants.

The UCAS increase is a result of a continued surge in non-EU applicants, which by June 2023 had hit 115,650, surpassing last year’s record of 111,720 non-EU students.

Numbers of EU student applications have however continued to drop. The 22,400 applications from the continent is slightly down on the 23,160 in 2022, compared with a high of 51,310 in 2019. EU students lost access to home fees in the 2021/22 academic year, after the UK left the European Union.

Numbers from many EU countries dropped, including Ireland which dropped to 5,390 from 5,510 despite its students still being eligible for home fee status. Others remained stable, while student cohorts from Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovakia rose for the first time since Brexit.

Beyond the EU, applications from India increased by 8.7%, the Middle East by 20.8% and Africa by 3.9%.

UCAS noted that a 2.2% drop in applications from China (totalling 30,700) was likely due to Covid-19 restrictions and disruption to learning.

The top international source countries for applications after China were India with 12,920 (+8%), US with 6,900 (+5.7%), Hong Kong with 6,060 (-8.4%), Nigeria 5,020 (-5.3%), Malaysia 4,470 (+5.8%) and UAE 3,980 (+13.8).

While the total number of non-domestic student applications has increased, the overall number of applications in 2023 has fallen to 667,650 from 683,650 last year.

The statistics come days after a group of right-wing, anti-immigration MPs calling themselves the New Conservatives pressed for new measures to reduce total net migration to the UK. In 2022, migration to the UK reached 606,000, with over 135,000 visas granted to dependents of international postgraduate students.

The government has already put an end to masters taught students bringing with dependants from January 2024.

“We should not wait for our universities to start falling over one by one”

The group of MPs want the Graduate Route for international student to be closed, university study visas to be reserved for “the brightest international students” by “excluding the poorest performing universities from eligibility criteria” and the closure of the dependent route to be extended further to include one-year research students.

Closing the student dependents route would reduce net migration by 76,000, closing the Graduate Route work visa would reduce it by 47,000 and ending study visas for poorest performing universities would reduce it by a further 49,000, they claim.

However, the calls come as institutions across the UK feel pressure on their finances.

Earlier this year, former minister for universities and science Lord Jo Johnson warned that tuition fees have been eroded by inflation.

Linking funding to quality – as proposed under the Cameron government – would have “align[ed] the interests of students, taxpayers and providers in a highly desirable way”, he said.

On July 10, he told the House of Lords that the “current impasse is creating a situation in which we are systematically defunding our universities, depriving the engines of our knowledge economy of the fuel they need to offer great teaching and world-class research”.

He reiterated that government should have continued with the Cameron government’s method to enable fees to rise with inflation, “as it would have maintained university funding on a more sustainable footing than it is at present and entirely avoided the current crisis”.

Institutions rated gold or silver under the Teaching Excellence Framework would have been able to charge fees of approaching £12,000, he said.

Giving an example, Johnson said the University of East Anglia would have had an extra £38 million, which he noted would “wipe out the black hole in its finances”.

“We do not need a big review. We should not wait for our universities to start falling over one by one. We need to get on and use the mechanism that already exists,” he added.

The government responded that it does not believe it is “fair to students to increase tuition fees at this time”.

Co-founder and managing director of dataHE, Mark Corver, has also urged for a “bold resetting” of university funding systems.

Writing for HEPI, Corver said that very high inflation has triggered funding crisis.

“The real unit of resource has fallen from £9,000 in 2012 to £6,060 in April 2023. Universities have now lost the equivalent of around £3 billion from their annual income for teaching from the inflation effects of just the 18-months from August 2021,” he said.

Corver has also calculated that higher tariff providers – who he says on average charge international students £25,000 for full time undergraduate programs per year – would need to “switch” 10,000 places from domestic to international student places to offset the effects of inflation on the fee cap if total intake numbers remain the same.

“Last year higher tariff providers did increase the proportion of international students, but by nowhere near enough to cover all the losses from inflation… But the scale of increase in higher fee students needed simply to stand still shows how the idea of having international students helping to pay for UK students, which has a number of drawbacks, is also not really feasible when inflation is so high,” he said.

The Russell Group noted that the UK UCAS applications to higher tariff universities are “at a similar level to last year and significantly up on the pre-pandemic trend” this year.

“Whilst competition for places at top universities remains high, there is a welcome increase in the proportion of students holding a firm offer from their preferred university this year,” chief executive, Tim Bradshaw, said.

He also pointed to targets to diversify international student intakes are “beginning to pay off”.

“As well as bringing a range of cultural, social and economic benefits to the UK, revenue from international students is reinvested into high-quality education and research to benefit all students and UK society,” Bradshaw said.

The number of UK 18-year-olds accepted to Russell Group universities in 2022 was up with a 12% increase on 2019 compared to a 5% rise for the equivalent international students, the organisation emphasised.

A spokesperson for UUKi reminded that while there has been growth in international numbers in recent years, home intakes have also risen.

“Critically, in the context of the tuition fee freeze, international fees have helped to support and cross-subsidise domestic places,” they told The PIE.

“International fees have helped to support and cross-subsidise domestic places”

Corver told The Telegraph that vice-chancellors have had to choose between putting their universities into “short-term financial jeopardy by taking home students in and not being able to cover their bills” or face long-term difficulties by enrolling international students and increase “the risk profile of the university funding and deterring future demand from UK 18-year-olds”.

University admissions have always been competitive, “particularly for places at higher tariff institutions”, UUKi added.

“As we see a return to exam grading and offer making this year, this competition may feel stronger. However, we are still anticipating that the vast majority of students will be accepted onto one of their preferred choices, and there is plenty of capacity across the sector for anyone who wants to go to university to do so.

“Admissions teams work round the clock over the summer to ensure that all students are considered as individuals, with their particular circumstances taken into account. The sector is exceptionally proud of the work that has been done to improve access for some of the least advantaged students over the last 10 years.”


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