What does fewer international students in higher education mean for the UK?

Group of multiracial international exchange university student friends sitting on the grass in the college campus
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The UK has discussed reducing the amount of dependents students from abroad can have when in university. How will this affect the number of international students in higher education?

Much financial planning in universities has been focused on issues at home, as of late, as decisions are made about what additional help students and staff might need to cope with rising household bills and travel expenses.

However, one of the greatest financial challenges ahead for the sector has a much wider global reach – and it has the potential to challenge the UK’s reputation as a leading provider of higher education altogether – the future of international student recruitment.

International students in higher education are needed

Regardless of the scale or size of an institution, there will be an element of its revenue that is reliant on the ability to attract students from beyond our shores.

Against the backdrop of global economic pressures, the UK’s universities have had to work much harder to maintain their status as the destination of choice of international students – and the challenge could become even more difficult.

At the time of writing, the government continues to consider whether or not to restrict the number of international students in higher education permitted to travel to the UK with dependents, as part of its bid to bring down net migration.

This could spark a significant reduction in fees revenue for a sector still recovering from the pandemic.

Financial uncertainty in higher education

Recent analysis by the Russel Group has suggested that by 2025, some universities could face a deficit of £4,000 for every UK student taught.

A further fall in international student fees income would come at a time when the sector is already carrying considerable losses from the shift of learning online during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The fees from international students in higher education could help to plug financial gaps.

The fees from international students in higher education could help to plug financial gaps

Students who come to the UK from overseas often live closer to their institutions too, and are therefore more likely to spend time and money in the cafes and clubs being provided on campus, easing budget pressures further.

But among the deepest concerns for department heads and instructors in our universities is that falling numbers of international students could have a negative impact on the very aspects that make participating in higher education in the UK such an attractive prospect.

We have a rich history of students coming from across the world to study in the UK, bringing with them a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. If universities are unable to recruit such diverse cohorts of students, and there are fewer opportunities for social interaction due to economic pressures, then could the entire raison d’etre for a student choosing to go to a university in the UK be at risk?

Back view of man presenting to students at a lecture theatre
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The price of a quality education

Whatever decisions are made in Whitehall about international student numbers, there are additional spending commitments universities who continue to recruit from overseas will need to factor into their short and long-term budget planning.

Most international students in higher education are not entitled to the same levels of government support for household expenses as their UK-based peers. For example, they are much more likely to be on the least favourable energy deals putting even more pressure on their finances. The price tag for those institutions wanting to provide support to bridge the economic gap could be considerable.

There is also the ongoing investment universities are making to bolster the student wellbeing and support services they provide in response to growing demand.

As the cost of living drives more UK students into cheaper accommodation further away, or the relatively inexpensive option of remaining in the family home, the ability to continue to attract and retain international students could, at the very least, help to offset these spending commitments.

Financial planning with flexibility

Any additional limits on the number of international students permitted to come to the UK to study will result in institutions having to invest more, and work much harder, to attract the best students and keep them engaged from the beginning of their studies through to graduation.

A clear picture of the current financial position, plus short and long-term budget planning, with some flexibility built in, will help to keep the UK high up on the list of preferred destinations for international students and delivering the university experience all students want and deserve.


Iain Sloan is a senior solutions consultant at Ellucian. He was formerly student systems development manager at Oxford Brookes University.


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