Will Hazel. The Telegraph, July 8, 2023
Thousands of middle class British students face missing out to foreign applicants on places at the country’s top universities this summer, with Whitehall figures fearing it could spark a “revolt”.
A former director at the admissions service Ucas said universities were sharply increasing the proportion of international students – who pay much higher fees – in a “desperate scramble” to keep up funding levels.
At the same time, universities are under pressure to admit more students from poorer backgrounds, meaning UK students from more affluent families risk being squeezed out.
Vice-chancellors say soaring inflation has resulted in universities losing thousands of pounds on each UK student, whose fees have been capped at £9,250 since 2017.
Mark Corver, an ex-director of analysis at Ucas, said the share of places given to international students by the most selective universities could rise to 30 per cent this autumn, up from a quarter last year. This could mean up to 10,000 fewer places for UK students.
With top universities charging international students about £25,000, he said universities had “mitigated” their loss on domestic students by awarding “higher and higher proportions” of foreign places.
Sector figures confirmed that they were expecting a tipping point at which universities would begin displacing significant numbers of British students in favour of international applicants to stay afloat.
If a student achieves the grades required by their offer, they will get their place. However, top universities are likely to have been more cautious in making offers to British students and will be less likely to admit them if they narrowly miss their grades.
Such universities may also choose to only offer Clearing places for international students this summer.
One Whitehall source said middle class students in particular could be hit, adding: “There’s a real possibility that those people are going to revolt and they’re going to be furious.”
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank and a former government special adviser, warned of a “scandal waiting to happen”.
He said: “It’s always been the case at Oxford and Cambridge that it’s a zero sum game. Every extra foreigner displaces a Brit because the colleges don’t want to get any bigger at an undergraduate level. But that is increasingly spreading to elsewhere in the sector.”
Mr Hillman said the universities most affected were likely to be the “top end” of the elite Russell Group. He added that universities “run a bit like businesses… you can’t take ever greater numbers of loss-making activity, and home students are loss-making activity now”.
He said universities were simultaneously under pressure from the Department for Education and the Office for Students to open their doors to poorer UK students.
“You’ve also got access requirements on universities and universities wanting to take more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, quite rightly,” he added. “So the ones who tend to get squeezed out are the middle class families who’ve always assumed their kids will go to these older, more prestigious universities.”
Vice-chancellors facing ‘terrible choice’
Dr Corver, who now runs the dataHE consultancy, explained that because of the “surge in inflation”, by September tuition fees could be worth less than £6,000 in 2012 terms, meaning “the sector has lost a third of the real value” since then.
He said the proportion of foreign undergraduates entering the most academically selective universities had risen from about one in 10 in the mid-2000s to about 23 per cent last year.
If universities wanted to “neutralise the effects of the further erosion of the home fee” and keep per student funding level in real terms this year, they would need to further increase the share of places to about 30 per cent.
If the total intake was kept the same, this would involve about 10,000 places being shifted from home to international students. However, Dr Corver said that would be smaller if universities decided not to fully offset inflation.
The “very dangerous crisis” meant vice-chancellors were facing a “terrible choice”, he said, adding: “Do they put their university into short-term financial jeopardy by taking home students in and not being able to cover their bills?
“Or do they put their university into long-term jeopardy by taking international students in, increasing the risk profile of the university funding and deterring future demand from UK 18-year-olds?”
An official at a university in the south of England said: “It becomes not a cynical choice to prefer a student that attaches more income. It becomes almost necessary to maintain your financial stability.”
The source agreed it was possible that some middle class students could be edged out from top universities because of “stretching targets” to widen access.
In both the higher education sector and Whitehall, there is an acceptance that universities will not receive extra money before the next election. Some senior Conservative MPs are also sceptical about the warnings, suspecting vice-chancellors of orchestrating a campaign to lift the tuition fees cap.
Dr Corver said it meant there was “no end in sight” to the funding squeeze.
Tim Bradshaw, the chief executive of the Russell Group, said the group was “proud of having a diverse student body” and that money from international students was “reinvested” into education and research to benefit all students.
“With government per-student funding falling, this revenue is now being asked to cover increasing deficits in both domestic teaching and publicly-funded research,” he said.
While universities strived “to run as efficiently as possible”, he said that “as costs rise and deficits grow” their “ability to mitigate the impact on quality and choice for students is limited”, adding: “That is why we are calling for a more sustainable approach to funding.”
‘Committed to attracting the brightest’
A spokesman for Universities UK said international fees had helped institutions “support and cross-subsidise domestic places”.
The spokesman said: “University admissions have always been competitive, particularly for places at higher tariff institutions. As we see a return to exam grading and offer making this year, this competition may feel stronger.
“However, we are still anticipating that the vast majority of students will be accepted onto one of their preferred choices, and there is plenty of capacity across the sector for anyone who wants to go to university to do so.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Domestic students continue to make up the vast majority of students within our universities, and include record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“We remain committed to attracting the brightest students from around the world, who by coming here provide significant economic growth, expertise for our international research and increase the UK’s soft-power around the world – with 55 of the current world leaders having been educated here.”