While awaiting the Augar review, UK universities have been busy modelling the potential impact of a reduction in the income they receive for each domestic undergraduate student they recruit – including worst case scenarios where none of that lost income is replaced. Of course, this also means identifying alternative income streams.
Now that the review has been published, HEIs have a little more detail (‘top up’ funding will be applied to high-delivery-cost/high ‘value’ degrees and will follow individual students from disadvantaged backgrounds), but – thanks to our current political turmoil – no more certainty about what will actually happen and which recommendations will actually be implemented.
So the planning for income diversification (which has long been business-as-usual for most UK HEIs) must continue.
The instinctive reaction for many universities when there is a threat to domestic fee income (whether triggered by a reduction in price, a demographic dip or some other factor) is to look to international student recruitment to ‘plug the gap’. There are no caps on numbers and no caps on fees to worry about.
But it’s important for leaders to take a step back and ask some searching questions rather than launch into a ‘knee-jerk’ international student recruitment drive.
Do we want to change the profile of the university?
Does having more international students fit with our mission? What do we want the future size, shape and profile of the institution to be – and how does a growth in international student numbers play into this? Since most international students study at postgraduate level and there tends to be concentration in certain subject areas, how will the balance of the institution be affected? And what are the implications for our subject portfolio, learning and teaching, research, student experience, even the wider community outside the university? Is that what we want? How can we prepare for it?
Is it a realistic ambition for us to recruit more international students?
Competition (within the UK sector and from other destination countries) is tougher than ever. Despite now having a government International Education Strategy with specific growth targets, UK HEIs are (at the time of writing) still battling a Home Office regime which drastically affects the country’s appeal. Do our institution and our key international programmes have a strong enough reputation to cut through that and demonstrate their value? Can we afford to invest in international profile-raising? Are there other options which are more realistic for us to achieve and might help to differentiate the institution? (Examples explicitly mentioned in the Augar review include accelerated degrees, multiple start dates, distance learning.)
What are our plans for students from the EU?
Augar anticipates a post-Brexit slump (at national level) in EU student numbers but suggests this will be compensated for by the demographic upturn in domestic 18 year olds from 2020 onwards. Is this reduction in EU students something our institution is just willing to accept? If not, what are we doing at institutional level to maintain or increase our EU student numbers? A recent survey by QS, reported on in The Guardian, shows they are concerned about the prospect of higher fees. Where does EU student recruitment fit within our overall internationalisation strategy? What specific measures can we take to reassure prospective EU students?
There are many more questions, I’m sure. The above three are a starting point for discussion.
As always, the key to success will be a holistic approach to international student recruitment, positioning it within a wider internationalisation strategy which, in turn, is an integral part of overarching institutional strategy; and a long-term view which values sustainability over a quick buck.
Dr Vicky Lewis is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin.