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MPs to investigate universities’ funding reliance on international students

26 April 2024

The Education Committee has launched a new inquiry into some universities’ reliance on revenue from international student tuition fees.  

There are concerns about budget deficits at a growing number English universities. The proportion of higher education providers with an annual overspend increased year-on-year from 5% in 2015, to 32% in 2020. As a result, universities are increasingly looking to international students to cover budget shortfalls, as they pay significantly higher fees than domestic students. 

 In 2021/22 there were 679,970 overseas students at UK universities (including undergraduate and postgraduate students), representing around a quarter of the total student population, and up from 469,000 four years earlier. The 2022 figure was a record high, with the UK ranked as the third most popular destination for international students. There have also been media reports that some Russell Group universities now get a minority of tuition fee revenue from domestic students. 

 Following recent changes to visa rules for international students, which some are suggesting will reverse the trend of growth witnessed over recent years, there is now greater concern that the sector has become over-reliant on overseas students. 

 Changes introduced in January 2024 included restrictions on non-research students’ entitlement to bring dependants to the UK, and removing the possibility of switching to a work visa before completing studies.

 The Migration Advisory Committee is also currently reviewing the system of graduate visas and is due to report in May. Universities UK has warned that a significant number of international applicants now feel discouraged from studying in the UK. 

 The inquiry will also examine the effectiveness of the Government’s 2019 International Education Strategy, trends in the types of courses that attract more or fewer international students, and whether a high proportion of international students might impact availability of places for domestic students. 

Chair comment

Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP said: 

“That the UK is the third most popular destination for international students is a source of pride and a credit to the strength of our world class universities. The contribution that those students bring is also hugely valued in our cities, industries and institutions. It boosts exports and strengthens UK soft power when students who have studied here return to their home countries with a positive experience of study in the UK. 

“However, England’s universities, including some of its elite institutions, are facing significant challenges, with a growing number finding themselves increasingly dependent on income from international students to balance the books. This inquiry will explore concerns that some universities have become too reliant on students from abroad to shore up their balance sheets, and to what extent this is sustainable.  

“My cross-party Committee will investigate what these challenges are likely to mean for the future of higher education in England. We will explore how the sector, and the Government, intend to address the potential financial risks associated with an increased reliance on international students, as well as looking at the overall contributions international students make in our universities.”   

Inquiry terms of reference 

The Committee is inviting written evidence submissions that respond to the terms of reference below. Experts, organisations and individuals can submit evidence online on the Committee’s website by 24 May 2024. 

  • Numbers and proportions of international students in English universities, including:  
    • Changes in numbers in recent years and the reasons behind these changes. 
    • The impact of international students on university funding. 
    • The impact on the availability of places for domestic students.  
    • How proportions of international students differ between different courses,     including breakdowns by subject and between undergraduate and postgraduate               courses. 
  • How England compares to other countries in the balance between numbers of international and domestic students. 
  • What an appropriate balance between numbers of international and domestic students should look like and whether universities are currently achieving this balance. 
  • The likely impact on international student numbers of recent changes to student visa conditions and any proposed changes to the Graduate Route. 
  • The effectiveness of the Government’s International Education Strategy launched in 2019. 

Further information

Image credit: House of Commons