The pandemic has increased, not decreased, the number of foreign applications
Over the last two years numerous institutes, directors and government bodies have worried about the number of international students at UK universities drastically falling because of the Covid pandemic. However, recent figures released from HESA UK (Higher Education Statistics Agency) prove that in fact, quite the opposite has happened.
According to HESA, the number of Chinese students has risen by 50% over the last 5 years, meaning that 32% of all non-EU international students are from China (in the last year, however, this figure has fallen 5%). Nigeria ranks fourth in terms of international enrolment, but the number has tripled from 7440 in 2019/2020 to 21,305 in 2020/2021. And despite Brexit and Covid chaos, the number of EU international students has also increased over the last two years, with Italy sending the most students. Most staggering though is the increase in the number of Indian students studying in the UK. In 2016/2017 it was 16,900; in 2020/2021 it was 84,555 — an increase of 400%.
There are numerous reasons behind these increases; one of the most important being the decisions by other countries to close their borders. Australia, for example, has seen their international enrolment halve since the start of the pandemic. Similar patterns were seen in America (a drop of 45% in new students), New Zealand (two-thirds) and China, all of which had, or still have, some of the strictest travel policies.
There are undeniable benefits to having diverse, international classrooms, but we should also be concerned about these growing numbers. There are undeniable benefits to having diverse, international classrooms, but there are drawbacks too. Many others have written about the political and financial risks of universities’ dependence on Chinese students. Some rely on China for a quarter of their entire income; UCL tops the list with an estimated £127 million worth of funding from Chinese students alone.
Others have argued that our language requirements for international students are too low, and this might impact the quality of teaching and learning for both the students themselves and their peers. In his 2020 book Internationalisation of Post-1992 UK Universities, Peter Brady argues that recruitment of international students has become too commercial, and a means to plug funding gaps rather than attract the best and brightest students.
These increases have also started affecting domestic applicants. The number of UK students enrolled at Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and LSE has fallen between 2014 and 2019, which is unsurprising given that applications from international students have risen by 56% over the same period. These international students may well be here thanks to academic talent and ability, but it’s easy to see why money may get in the way of objectivity; for instance, an international Medicine student may pay up to £38,000 a year, which is four times more than a UK student would.
The rapid shift to universities acting like businesses in search of revenue has not been arrested by the pandemic — in the UK at least, it is only speeding up.