Why are international students defaulting on their fees payments?

I hear that across the country, a whole number of universities are panicking not just about the number of international students that have been (or are being for January) recruited, but also higher than usual volumes of students not paying their fees by any deadline that might have applied in October or November.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s not hard to understand why. Inflation has been through the roof. Student rents are rising higher. University cost of living information is routinely out of date and often completely misrepresents how expensive the UK is to live in.

I’ve heard enough stories of misrepresentations and in some cases downright lies from agents on the subject to write a book. Increases in visa fees and the NHS surcharge won’t have helped.

And the Home Office doesn’t help either – it says that international students need to show they have enough money to support themselves – but has been saying that means £1,334 per month (for up to 9 months) for courses in London or £1,023 per month (for up to 9 months) for courses outside London since 2020. There’s not a lot of evidence that that was do-able three years ago – it almost certainly isn’t now.

For those students whose universities cannily got the paperwork sorted early who’ve since experienced currency shocks, the “sunk costs” misery of choosing between a whopping non-refundable deposit being lost or seeing if they can scrape by is an especially bleak either/or – and is bound to be a decent explanation for the disproportionate use that international students are making of food banks and pantries that students’ unions tell me about.

I suspect there’s a few things that would help – other than regulating agents better, increasing the financial requirement and being much more honest about contemporary cost of living challenges:

Hardship fund availability: It’s quite astonishing to me that several universities still aren’t offering hardship funding at all, and perhaps worse that some universities are asserting to their students’ unions that they’re not allowed to because of the “no recourse to public funding” rule. They’re international – not stupid.

Hardship fund framing: Aside from the headline warnings on plenty of webpages that there are “limited funds” or that a student must be in an “emergency”, the majority suggest that a student must have experienced a significant “change of circumstances”. Most international students wouldn’t twig that being lied to (at least by omission) by all and sundry would count – and indeed in many cases the Ts and Cs suggest that it wouldn’t. A bit of discussion with those that are facing the problem would help explain it and help reframe those messages.

Instalments: At my last count about 20 universities offered monthly instalments. If it’s the case that students are appearing, and then having paid the rent (often upfront) and tried to eat are then funding their lives through (often highly precarious) work, this feels like a no-brainer.

Threats: The surefire way to ensure that students go to ground, refuse to talk and fail to reach out is to threaten them with the removal of campus access or worse, exclusion and deportation given that students are already suspicious of the way in which universities act as an arm of the state for immigration purposes. As UUKi notes here, students are bound to be concerned that telling the university that they are in financial hardship may affect their visa status. Deploying the big rent font, capital letters and the letters UKVI are going to make that worse, not better.

Costs: I would say this, but revisiting the reasons why student life has become so expensive and putting in place proper strategies to get the costs down haven’t become less important just because everyone lost interest in the working group. Segmenting fresh focus group work by student characteristic will help with the APP if you’re in England – and will help the fees get paid wherever you are.

10 responses to “Why are international students defaulting on their fees payments?

  1. Hardship support is not a back door route to a fully-funded studentship, Jim. If your position is that Universities should provide assistance to aid students experiencing a temporary financial problem, then make that clear. Likewise, if you are saying HEIs should step in and cover fees and maintenance costs that were in fact predictable from the onset of a course, then make that clear as well. And please indicate where the required funding is going to come from.

    1. The magic money tree perhaps?

      Many students from effectively legally unreachable, for debt enforcement, non-Western countries are being told by previous cohorts to hold onto their final years fee’s until they have their results, then do a moon-light flit with the money. Until Universities insist on full payment up front this situation isn’t going to improve.

  2. @claritystreet – I think it’s entirely possible that a student that finds they need to work to cover all their costs needs to pay by instalments rather than (for example) cover 50% of their fees in October. The question is – will they have, having understandably not budgeted for the full amount(s) by say Nov 1st, the large chunk they’re supposed to have? If not but there’s a decent chance that with monthly instalments and/or hardship support if they otherwise prioritise fees over rent/food, it’s the smart move.

  3. The point is that the maintenance costs weren’t “entirely predictable” – pretty much all of the evidence points to the contrary

    1. Jim, many of the international students at my institution have made no provision for their living costs other than having a plan to get a part-time job. When you have literally hundreds of international students arriving with the same plan, but there are only limited jobs available, it’s not realistic to expect institutions to step in and provide financial support to all of these students. This is the reality on the ground – hundreds of international students who have proved they had funds to cover their living costs in order to get their visa, and then arrived with very little. Some have arrived with less than a £100 to their name and can’t even afford housing. How do you expect institutions to support these students? Where will this money come from?

      1. There’s obviously a world of difference between those who arrive with the HO’s relevant proof of funds amounts and find those to be insufficient, and those that somehow get around those limits (by borrowing?)

  4. We absolutely should make every effort to support students in hardship, including international students, and make every reasonable effort to guide them to sources of support and help them to access them. But it is reality that education, like everything else, costs, and at some point you have to make clear that if they can’t fund their studies then they will have to return to their home countries until they’re in a position to return and complete payment. HEIs have a statutory duty to make every reasonable effort to collect all money owed to them, and to do it in a way that is fair to all; every student defaulting on their fees is subsidised by other students, in the form or higher fees or reduced services that they can access.

  5. Thank you Jim for highlighting what I’ve found to be a worrying trend in some of the universities I’ve worked for over the past couple of years – non-payment of the full expected and budgeted for international tuition fees. In addition, I’ve also found another ‘hidden’ problem – very early drop out rates for students from some countries. It’s hidden because we don’t see the full extent of non-completion rates in HESA because universities only report data for students registered for more than 50-days. I wrote to the Home Office asking for data on:

    (i) number of Tier 4 visas issued to students and used, by HEI
    (ii) number of student no shows as reported, by HEI
    (iv) number of reported student withdrawals within 50 days of arrival, by HEI

    Unfortunately it’s not data they “held in a readily available format; therefore, providing you with these figures would require a manual examination of cases in our databases, which would exceed the cost limit”.

  6. Maybe the UK HE should be properly funded and not rely on international students to prop up the system? Neither domestic tuition fees nor government (UKRI) commissioned research cover costs. If properly funded, we would have a healthier relationship with international students.

  7. The fact needs to be said as simplified by Jim, there are some evidenced economic factors impacting international students’ attitude towards meeting up with their financial commitment at the UK. In all we can’t ignore the cost-of-living crisis not just in the UK but having much impact on other world economies, taking example from Nigeria, a lot of international students from the region are struggling due to inflation and bad government policies with much effect on moribund financial institutions where some students having funds but can’t access it and even if they do, the exchange rate is so high that they would need much more funds to make up for the deficiency in their finances to pay for their tuition fees. Also, the recruitment agencies need to be regulated as sometimes they pose a major issue to international students as they fail to offer genuine, accurate and credible information on the expectations of true living cost in the UK.

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