Yes, international students are displacing home students

"If your child isn’t being discriminated against because you were stupid enough to have a successful career and go to a private school or buy a family home in a leafy postcode (NB: remember to purchase flat on sink estate next time), then the few remaining stellar university places they might have had a shot at will be snaffled by a Chinese or Indian student."

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Those were the words of the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson on Wednesday, summing up the tenor of the broadsheet coverage we’ve endured during results week this time around.

Accompanying the annual results week panic over low-income students coming here and stealing our Russell Group places, this year England got an exciting new import from Scotland – international students coming here and stealing our places too.

The former of these crystallised around a stat twisted up by the Telegraph showing that applicants from the most affluent backgrounds are the least likely to have received a university offer for the first time on record.

The Telegraph failed, of course, to account for the fact that said students from affluent backgrounds are more likely to have attempted to all pile into the 24 universities in the Russell Group. That makes the “crisis” one of information, advice and guidance and educational elitism – there’s no shortage of places in general.

The latter crystallised around another Telegraph twist stat – as it reported that a fifth of places at Russell Group universities have been awarded to international students. It failed, of course, to notice that the places awarded to home domiciled students have been in part funded by those international students.

What’s kind of odd is the way the sector has played the story.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education (where is Andrea Jenkyns?) said international students make a significant contribution to our universities which “actually supports the creation of more places for domestic students, not fewer”. Fair enough.

But then the spokesperson (hello? Andrea? Are you there?) says that it is:

…a myth that offering a place to an international student takes a place away from a student in the UK – places are offered to UK students and those from overseas in two separate streams.”

It’s not just the government. Given that a gap in funding has emerged given the decline in the value of £9250 fees, on the World at One yesterday duty Universities UK rep Stephen Marston (University of Gloucestershire VC) was asked if universities are using international fees to make up the gap. “Not to make up the gap, no”. He continued:

No university is withholding places from any home student in order to keep them for an international student… We’re not crowding out foreign students”.

Even in the Russell Group, Marston argued that:

…they are not taking international students instead of home students”.

But this doesn’t make any sense. Either there’s a scarcity of “places” at university or there isn’t.

In the elite end of the sector, scarcity positioning is particularly important for the maintenance of high tariff selection, which in turn enables it to pretend that it was the university rather than the entry criteria what got them grads a good job.

If there are therefore 100 “places”, and a university isn’t giving all 100 places to the home students who meet the stated criteria for an offer, it must be the case that some of the “places” have been “taken” by international students.

Even if some of the domestic capacity is funded by the international recruitment, there’s still a fixed number of places on some of these courses because there’s only so many bedspaces, academics and so on.

The only other explanation would be that the university looks at all of its applications – both home and international – in one sweep, selecting those that look the best regardless of their home/international status. Maybe – but that DfE spokesperson spoils that by saying that “places are offered to UK students and those from overseas in two separate streams.”

It’s true of course that with a fixed, and therefore in real terms failing unit of resource, the sector feels it needs more profitable students to balance that out. In some cases that facilitates expansion for home students. In some cases it can’t because home places are fixed, ie medicine.

But most of the real story is more subtle. If a campus and its underlying infrastructure can only hold 5,000 students, of course international students are taking some of the capacity. Instead of pretending they’re not, surely the smart thing to do would be to explain why.

The alternative is to abandon the scarcity illusion, and pretend that our towns and cities, and campuses and mental health services, can just take as many international students as want to come. That can’t be true – as those in some universities pretending that it is, as PGT numbers swell beyond all reasonable capacity limits, are about to find out.

7 responses to “Yes, international students are displacing home students

  1. We are most certainly displacing home students – it’s the only thing that makes sense. As I type this my University plan to close smaller UG courses in the humanities to create space for international post-grad students in STEM and the Business School.

    Most of our PGT courses are entirely international students and more and more we create them entirely to be of interest to certain international markets.

    It’s simple economics – nothing more, nothing less.

  2. Outside the RG though there are plenty of places, so the capacity is there to take UK and oversease students. It is true now that financially it appears that international income supports delivery to UK students, although many international students reside off campus, reducing income from housing, food and the like

  3. As AS says, ‘simple economics’!

    Thumping loss on R so o/s UG fees needed to sub RG R activity – that R, of course, then creates the global brand based on metrics that disproportionately measure R (and ignore the mystery of the Black Box of trying to assess & compare T), and that global brand/ranking in turn attracts o/s UGs + PGTs (and indeed UK UGs, even if it says nothing about the quality of UG T).

    All solved if only HMG provided adequate overheads on its Rfunding – but Treasury at present can just sit back and watch China via the many many Chinese students duly sub UK HE’s R production. But potential risk of massive geopolitical disruption of such cash-low…

  4. I’m pretty sure the increase in international students has been entirely in courses that are easier to “scale” (e.g., business, economics, and law). Basically, several universities have taken on more international students—without reducing the number of domestic students they admit—by just increasing student numbers on certain courses. (This strategy works well for universities in city centres. It’s probably harder to implement elsewhere.)

  5. ‘Bums on seats’, especially higher paying ‘Bums on seats’ (£30K a year v £9k home students) with all the add-ons in accommodation income, pre-sessional courses etc will always be the driver. And of course the Universities need the money to fund not just their lavish (and no so) expansion plans, but to simply keep the decrepit place running in many cases.

  6. This question has been studied extensively with mixed results. Assuming that Universities are not resolutely against increases in head count, the most convincing analysis finds that the cross-subsidy and crowding-in effect dominates the crowding-out effect. The technique is to analyse ‘natural experiments’ (shocks to the supply of international students). For example, see Shih (2017). Oxford has a strategic plan which blocks any UG expansion except for Computer Science and they have also just closed down one of their private halls (St Benet’s) losing around 20 quota places. This may explain David Palfreyman’s perspective and Oxford may be an exception where crowding out does dominate. Btw Andrea Jenkyns did a Facebook Q&A this month and gave the same response as her Department did:

  7. This is not my experience of supporting student number targeting within an institution and doesn’t make sense to me in a number of ways.

    Firstly, I’d guess that the majority of programmes in UK HE are simply not selecting, or not commonly recruiting at a level approaching their physical limits. They will take as many students as they can get, Home or Overseas. We’re really talking about *some* of the Russell Group and one or two others here (which is fair in context, Telegraph columnists are doing the same, I suppose…)

    Secondly, a not insignificant number of university programmes run at narrow margins that mean overseas students on the programme is the difference between the programme running at all or closing down.

    Lastly, even in institutions with large numbers of highly selective programmes, those overseas students are contributing very significantly more than 100% of the university’s surplus and directly funding capital investment that enables the expansion of those programmes in future years. Looking at one year in isolation is the wrong view and is rarely how university departments are thinking about their programmes.

    It may be true in some instances such as the example above that an institution, for strategic reasons, chooses not to expand numbers on programmes with growing demand, and does increase overseas intake at the expense of home. I expect this would be a tiny number of programmes at a tiny number of institutions.

    It would be fairly trivial and easy to monitor a regulation preventing institutions reducing their offer rate to UK applicants in programmes whilst increasing it for overseas students, if there was appetite for that, but the % of programmes who will ever be in that situation will be tiny.

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