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.