International students from outside the EU are an important marker of prestige for some UK universities, signalling an institution’s appeal in the global higher education market.

They are also a critical source of funding for UK higher education institutions, particularly for research-intensive universities that use their fees to cross-subsidise prestige-producing activities such as research. As the former Minister for Universities David Willetts put it, non-EU international students are the UK’s “great British export opportunity”. However, the shape and scale of this “export opportunity” is likely to change in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. We should expect a reduction in the number of overseas students seeking to gain a degree from a UK university. However, what can history teach us about which universities are more vulnerable to these changes?

A potted (recent) history of international students in UK universities

The sector’s reliance on non-EU international students is a relatively new phenomenon, coinciding with sector-wide reforms that sought to make universities more autonomous from the public purse to fund their activities. In 1979, the first Thatcher Government decided that students coming from outside the then European Economic Area had to pay for the full cost of their higher education. At first, the sector reacted virulently, arguing that this threatened UK’s cosmopolitanism. However, ten years later, international students had not stopped coming and UK institutions understood their potential as an important source of discretionary income: an industry flourished.

Since the late 1990s, until very recently, subsequent governments developed policies that attempted to either foster or restrict international student mobility to the UK. These policies, as Sylvie Lomer explains, were motivated by ideas that understood overseas students as beneficial for the economy –like Tony Blair’s 1999 “Prime Minister’s Initiative” for international students (PMI)– or as part of the solution to reduce net migration, an electoral commitment of the 2010 Coalition Government. In this sense, this recent history of policy-making around international students gives us the opportunity to understand the impact of a drop in incoming international students to UK higher education, which is the likely outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of a drop in international students: which universities are more vulnerable?

I’ve looked at the impact of the policies above on the distribution of international students across the sector. I was particularly interested in understanding the market value of a degree in different UK universities depending on the conditions in which international students make the decision to come to UK higher education. For instance, after 1999, visa application procedures became shorter and cheaper, and international students had access to more scholarships and had it easier to work in the UK during their degrees and after graduation. Conversely, after the election of the Coalition Government, visa conditions tightened and international students were required to return to their home countries after finishing their degrees. This had a profound impact in the numbers of students coming to the UK, particularly to certain universities.

I’ve found that, after the election of the Coalition Government in 2010, those universities that are regarded to be less prestigious suffered a significant hit in the number of international students they recruited, both at the undergraduate and master’s level. Using a HESA bespoke dataset with information on UK higher education students in Full-Time Equivalent numbers (FTE) from 1995-96 to 2016-17, I looked at the evolution of non-EU international student numbers across four groups of universities based on reputational disparities:

  • “golden triangle” universities: Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial, LSE and King’s;
  • other Russell Group institutions;
  • other  universities founded before 1992; and
  • new institutions that received their university title after 1992.

Figures 1 and 2 show this evolution at the undergraduate and master’s level respectively.


Figure 1. Evolution of undergraduate non-EU international student numbers across institutional types.


Figure 2. Evolution of master’s non-EU international student numbers across institutional types.

In figures 1 and 2 we observe two significant episodes of plateau and decline, particularly among post-1992 universities:

  1. between 2003-04 and 2006-07, coinciding with a period where pound sterling was particularly strong, and
  2. after the election of the Coalition Government in 2010. The latter was especially stark for post-1992 universities at the master’s level. On the other hand, the “golden triangle” and other Russell Group universities managed to keep their international student intakes growing.

International student recruitment in times of stagnation: lessons from history

A possible interpretation of my findings is that, during times of stagnation caused by circumstances that make international study more difficult, the institutions that suffer the hardest hit are those that are perceived to be less prestigious. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this may also be the case both during the pandemic and when international returns to “normal”.

It seems plausible that UK universities will start the new academic year online. This raises questions about the preferences of prospective international students: will traditional status hierarchies remain relevant for international distance learning? Will prospective international students prefer universities with a long history of distance learning instead, such as the Open University? Or will these students prefer to access online higher education at home? All these scenarios are possible and will probably coexist.

It is reasonable to believe that those students who would have been otherwise physically mobile, will still value status hierarchies. Moreover, on the supply-side, well-resourced research-intensive universities, which sit at the top of these status hierarchies, will be better prepared to invest in producing high-quality online education that goes beyond imitating traditional lectures and seminars, which will make them more attractive to international students.

When the pandemic ends, the world will be in recession, which will decrease students’ capacity to fund their studies abroad. It is reasonable to think that newer UK universities, which charge substantially lower international fees, cater for the global less affluent middle-classes, which will be severely hit by this economic milieu.

Recent history shows that, in competitive environments, less prestigious universities are more vulnerable to lose out when the number of incoming international students is reduced. This situation may be aggravated by the current pandemic.

4 responses to “What does history tell us about vulnerability to international recruitment changes?

  1. Interesting article even if a little glass half empty. One point worth noting is that the imminent recession does also mean that Universities that are more accessible and charge a lower fee will be a more attractive proposition, especially in countries where students are not as highly motivated by ranking, and there are many of those. EU students will soon be paying non-EU fees, once again pricing will be significant. There is also the not insignificant factor then when there is a recession many will choose to further their studies in lieu of fruitless job hunting. Lastly, but by no means least, not all the wealthiest students can afford to be the choosiest when it comes to their choice of University, grades still matter. So, let’s just say I remain more optimistic for my own University.

  2. I suggest institutions’ vulnerability to a fall in international student numbers depends not so much on their share of all international students shown by institutional type in these graphs, but on their number of international students as a proportion of all their students.

    In this Australia’s analogue of the Russell Group is particularly vulnerable because their international students are a high proportion of all their students. Their financial vulnerability is exacerbated because they can charge international students much higher fees than less prestigious institutions.

    The proportion of international students at less elite Australian universities seems to depend on their location and the astuteness of the institution’s strategies including their twinning arrangements off shore and their associations with pathways colleges on shore.

  3. These are very good points.
    In relation to less elite universities that are successful at recruiting international students: it would be critical to know if international students at these universities would rather go to “more elite” universities if they had the chance. To know this, we would need to have data on applications, which in the UK is not available, at least fully -many international students apply directly to their preferred institutions. The argument I wanted to make here was that it would be reasonable to think that if more places open up at elite institutions, international students that would have enrolled in a less elite university in “normal conditions”, they may not do so now. This may be particularly true at master’s level.

  4. “In 1979, the first Thatcher Government decided that students coming from outside the then European Economic Area had to pay for the full cost of their higher education.”

    That should be European Economic C O M M U N I T Y, not “Area”.

    The EEC was the main precursor title to the EU 1958-1992. The European Economic Area (EEA) is the more recent amalgam of the EU (27 states +UK on way out) and the remaining countries of EFTA (4 states, one of which is a microstate of no significance).

    In 1979 there were only 9 member states of the EEC. It’s worth pointing out that the largest expansion of EU member states was in 2004 when 10 states joined, and a further 3 subsequently to take the number to 27 (+UK). Therefore the definition of “non-EU” is not constant over the period – though I accept that this at the margins and the time series comparison is still a useful one. The fall in non-EU numbers after the withdrawal of the Labour government’s Post Study Work visa by the Coalition government in 2012 disproportionately affected recruitment from certain countries, specifically much less from India; and therefore universities that had built significant recruitment channels there were particularly affected regardless of their “status”.

    The crude division of “status” by “Golden Triangle”, Other Russell Group and Other pre1992 on the one hand and post 1992 on the other, has some validity but other divisions are possible – for example where an institution is positioned in say the four quartiles of the previous years Times Good University Guide, which is overwhelmingly the source used by nternational recruiting agents, might also be a useful way to slice the data and see the impact. Other ways of classifying university are possible, though self-definition by “mission” is fraught with problems.

    Please also note that most “post-1992” universities were “founded” well before 1992; some of them predate quite a few “pre-1992” universities by a century or so! The definitional issue is the date they achieved university status and title, not when they were “founded”.

    There have been significant variations between some post-1992 universities that have created niche and significant overseas markets, and those that have not. I think these divisions also exist in some parts of the other pre1992 sector.

    The overall sizes of student FTEs as a whole in each of these four divisions is also vastly different and as another comment points out, the overall INCOME PROPORTION of non-EU students varies very significantly by institution, and therefore the “vulnerability” will be felt most in some places much more than others. This “vulnerability” can be found in HESA finance returns.

    In 45 years in the sector, I’ve yet to meet a part time or mature local domestic student who felt that the proportion of non-EU students was a guide as to whether they should enrol at a particular institution, or not – course, subject, access are the key factors instead. Institutions are also internationalised educationally and culturally by the large presence of EU students in some.

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